Turkey. Freedom of Religion: Treatment of the atheists. February, 2018

The 1982 Turkish constitution provides for the freedom of belief, worship, and the private dissemination of religious ideas, and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Nevertheless, the state interprets secularism to require state control over religious communities, including their practices and houses of worship. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) maintains control over the practice of Islam in Turkey; all other religions are under the auspices of the General Directorate for Foundations (Vakiflar).[1]

There are also an unknown number of atheists; estimates by international and private Turkish polling organizations vary, but most recent published survey results suggest approximately 2 percent of the population is atheist’.[2]

The U.S. government estimates the population at 80.3 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the Turkish government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, approximately 77.5 percent of which are Hanafi Sunni. Representatives of other religious groups estimate their members represent approximately 0.3 percent of the population, while the most recent published surveys suggest approximately 2 percent of the population is atheist.

The constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in public primary and secondary schools, with content determined by the Ministry of National Education’s Department of Religious Instruction. Only students who marked “Christian” or “Jewish” on their national identity cards may apply for an exemption from religion classes. No exemptions are allowed for atheists, agnostics, Alevis or other non-Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Yezidis, or those who left the religion section on their national identity card blank.

In March the chair of the Sharia Association was fined 7,080 Turkish Lira ($1,928) for insulting and 6,000 Turkish Lira ($1,634) for threatening the chair of the Atheism Association.[3]

A group of NGOs have surveyed what Turkish parents and secondary school pupils think about the government’s education policies in relation to freedom of religion and belief. Some welcome state actions, but others feel coerced into religious instruction and practices they disagree with.

However, what parents want varies. Devout or pious Sunni Muslims, for example, want RCKE classes to continue to be compulsory. This is not because they want others to be forced to learn about Islam, but because they think that their own children may not opt for these courses if they are voluntary. In contrast, atheists are not opposed to religious education but want such classes to be voluntary.  Atheists tend not to be categorically opposed to religious education in schools, but stress that such education should be entirely voluntary. In relation to the “compulsory optional” Islam lessons, the Education Ministry convened a commission to produce optional lessons in Christianity – but did not convene similar commissions for the Alevis, despite their requesting it, nor for atheists, agnostics, or people of other beliefs.[4]

On the basis of the Lausanne Treaty (1923) that established the newly Turkish modern State after the War of Independence, Turkey recognizes only some non‐Muslims as minorities (i.e., Armenian Orthodox Christians, Jews and Greek Orthodox Christians), excluding different cultural and ethnic groups.

A recent positive development is the adoption by the parliament on 6 April 2016 of the Law on Human Rights and Equality Institution, addressing inter alia the discrimination on ethnic and racial grounds. The law prohibits discrimination on grounds of gender, race, color, language, religion, belief, philosophical or political opinion, ethnic origin, property, birth marital status, medical condition, disability and age. However, as the EC Communication 2016 noted: ‘A legal vacuum exists on human rights cases as the new National Human Rights and Equality institution has not yet been established. The rights of the most vulnerable groups and of persons belonging to minorities should be sufficiently protected. Gender‐based violence, discrimination, hate speech against minorities, hate crime and violations of human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons continue to be a source of a serious concern’.

Sources report that minorities, such as Assyrians, Caferis, Yezidis, Kurds, Arabs, Roma, Circassians, and Laz, are not permitted to fully exercise their social, economic, linguistic, religious, and cultural rights. The law nonetheless allows private institutions to provide education in languages and dialects that citizens use in their daily lives under certain conditions.[5]

Although the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, increasingly the public sphere is dominated by Sunni Islam. Alevi places of worship are not recognized as such by the government, meaning they cannot access the subsidies available to Sunni mosques. The number of religious schools that promote Sunni Islam has increased under the AKP, and Turkish public education includes compulsory religious education courses that non-Muslims are generally exempted from but Alevis and nonbelievers have difficulty opting out of. Three non-Muslim religious groups – Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Armenian Christians – are officially recognized. However, disputes over property and prohibitions on training of clergy remain problems for these communities, and the rights of unrecognized religious minorities are more limited.[6]

[1] United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2017 – Tier 2 countries – Turkey, 26 April 2017, available at:

[accessed 20 February 2018]

[2] United Kingdom: Home Office, Country Information and Guidance – Turkey: Background information, including actors of protection and internal relocation, February 2016, Version 1.0, available at:

[accessed 20 February 2018]

[3] United States Department of State, 2016 Report on International Religious Freedom – Turkey, 15 August 2017, available at:

[accessed 20 February 2018]

[4] Forum 18, Turkey: What do parents and pupils think?, 1 November 2017, available at:

[accessed 20 February 2018]

[5] European Union: European Asylum Support Office (EASO), EASO Country of Origin Information. Report Turkey Country Focus, November 2016, available at:

[accessed 20 February 2018]

[6] Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2018 – Turkey, 2 February 2018, available at:

[accessed 20 February 2018]