State Dept. Intervenes As U.S. Body Recommends Turkey Be Designated As Religious Freedom Violator

Patrick Goodenough | March 22, 2012 | 5:42am EDT
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During a February 2011 visit to Turkey, a USCIRF delegation including chairman Leonard Leo and commissioners Nina Shea, Felice Gaer, Elizabeth Prodromou, Ted Van Der Meid and (now former commissioner) Talal Eid meets with the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. (Photo: USCIRF)

(Editor’s note: Adds State Department comment)

( – A recommendation by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that Turkey be designated a “country for particular concern” (CPC) for religious freedom violations created divisions inside the commission, and the State Department intervened in an apparent attempt to reverse the decision.

The USCIRF’s annual report, released on Tuesday, included Turkey among 16 countries that warrant CPC designation under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The report also said that four of the nine commissioners dissented from the recommendation.

The majority of five carried the day, but it has since emerged that one of those five, Donald Argue, tried to change his position at the eleventh hour, to join the dissenting group.

The request by Argue came after he was approached by Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner. According to one of the commissioners, Nina Shea, Posner intervened after another commissioner tipped off the State Department about the plan to recommend CPC designation for Turkey.

The Obama administration has strong ties with the Islamist-leaning government of Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A last-minute addition to the dissenting bloc would have tipped the balance in favor of dropping the CPC recommendation for Turkey, but USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo said the move came too late.

“Commissioner Donald Argue did change his mind about CPC status,” Leo told Wednesday. “But, unfortunately, it was after all business and deliberations had closed, as prescribed by the timetable and procedures the commission unanimously adopted.”

According to a legal opinion prepared by the USCIRF’s general counsel – and provided to – the CPC recommendation for Turkey stands, since Argue raised the matter after the agreed deadline (he did so on March 17, three days before the report’s release), and because a six-member quorum that would have been needed to reopen the matter was not available.

Leo said the commission had no comment on Posner’s “selective intervention,” but he did point out that commissioners were bound by rules of confidentiality respecting country deliberations.

“We have a process for entertaining State Department input in the midst of our deliberations, which had been utilized for other countries, but not requested in the case of Turkey,” he added.

During the report’s compilation, the USCIRF sought State Department input regarding Afghanistan, for instance, following which the commissioners agreed – with Shea dissenting – not to recommend CPC designation for Afghanistan this year.

In response to queries, a State Department spokesman said, “Through our regular channels of communication with USCIRF, the department understood that USCIRF planned to recommend Turkey as a country of particular concern (CPC). Assistant Secretary Posner, who regularly briefs USCIRF, shared information about the status of religious freedom in Turkey with USCIRF commissioners.

“USCIRF is an independent commission and makes its own judgments on its designations of countries of particular concern (CPCs),” he said. “The administration separately designates countries of particular concern on the basis of legal requirements in the International Religious Freedom Act.”

Independent, bipartisan

This is the first time the USCIRF has recommended CPC designation for Turkey, a close NATO ally. From 2009 to 2011, Turkey was on its “watch list” – countries where the commission says abuses do not meet the threshold for CPC designation under the law, but should be closely monitored.

“Due to the Turkish government‘s systematic and egregious limitations on the freedom of religion or belief that affect all religious communities in Turkey, and particularly threaten the country‘s non-Muslim religious minorities, USCIRF recommends Turkey be designated a country of particular concern,” the new report states.

“The Turkish government, in the name of secularism, has long imposed burdensome regulations and denied full legal status to religious groups, violating the religious freedom rights of all religious communities,” it says. “These restrictions, including policies that deny non-Muslim communities the rights to train clergy, offer religious education, and own and maintain places of worship, have led to their decline, and in some cases, their virtual disappearance.”

The USCIRF was set up under the IRFA to provide independent, bipartisan advice to the executive and legislative branches on international religious freedom issues. Its commissioners, eminent figures with religious freedom credentials, are appointed as follows: three by the president, two by congressional leaders of the president’s party, and four by congressional leaders of the party not in the White House.

Countries designated as CPCs – because their governments perpetrate or condone “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” abuses – face various possible measures, including sanctions and diplomatic pressure to encourage improvements, although punitive actions may be waived, as they have been each year in the case of Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.

The State Department is not obliged to follow USCIRF recommendations on CPCs, and frequently it does not. In the case of Pakistan, for instance, the commission has recommended designation every year since 2002, to no avail.

Of the 16 countries the USCIRF says deserve CPC status, only half are currently designated as such by the State Department. They are Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

The other eight are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. (Iraq and Vietnam were previous designated CPCs. The Bush administration removed Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein; and Vietnam in 2006, citing improvements.)

‘Suffocating legal restrictions’

The four commissioners who disagreed with the recommendation on Turkey in the 2012 report said the move was counterproductive and did not take into account improvements.

“There is nothing in the country’s record that indicates Turkey has regressed in terms of religious freedom in the past year,” they wrote. “In fact the record is clear, Turkey should be commended for the progress it has made and encouraged to do more.”

The four dissenting commissioners were Azizah al Hibri, Felice Gaer and William Shaw – all Obama appointees – and Ted van der Meid, an appointee of Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

The commissioners in favor of CPC designation for Turkey were Leo (appointed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), Elizabeth Prodromou (appointed by then House Speaker Leader Nancy Pelosi), Shea (appointed by Boehner) and Richard Land (appointed by McConnell). Argue, the late dissenter, was appointed by Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid.

In response to the dissenting opinion, Leo, Shea and Prodromou wrote in the report that Erdogan’s AKP government had in ten years of rule “failed to take critical action for religious freedom.”

“After past genocide, and other violence, and current, suffocating legal restrictions, Turkey‘s Christian communities are barely hanging on,” they wrote. “Every year that passes without substantial religious reform places these minorities in greater peril and helps seal their fate. In the Arab Spring, Turkey holds itself out to be an Islamist model. But it is no model for religious freedom.”

Notwithstanding the differences among the commissioners, Leo said all agreed there were problems in Turkey.

“At the heart of the disagreement over Turkey, is simply the question whether we want to label Turkey’s practices in relation to freedom of religion as very bad or extremely bad,” he told

“But the important point is that all commissioners agree that there are serious freedom of religion abuses in Turkey that cannot be overlooked, and that these abuses affect majority Muslims as well as Christians, Alevis, and other religious minorities,” Leo said.

“Majority Muslims cannot put children in the schools of their choice, and Christianity is being suffocated by a tangled web of stifling constraints and regulations that make it impossible for those churches from perpetuating from one generation to the next.”

Turkish ambassador to the U.S. Namik Tan did not respond to queries, but he told Turkey’s Anatolia news agency that the USCIRF recommendation was “unjust and unexpected.”

The full USCIRF annual report (PDF, 2.4 MB) can be found here.

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