Muslim majority faces religious freedom problems in Turkey

Foreign Minister Ali Babacan stated that the Muslim majority in Turkey is facing restrictions on its religious freedoms, noting that the difficulties are not confined to non-Muslim minorities, reported World Bulletin.

"The Muslim majority is also facing problems concerning religious freedoms in Turkey," Babacan told a hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in Brussels. "We have been having a debate based on secularism in Turkey. Our definition of secularism is clear: separation of state and religious affairs, and the state not intervening in individuals fulfilling the requirements of their faith."

Babacan did not mention any specific difficulties, but it was likely that a ban on wearing the headscarf at universities was on his mind when he made the comments. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) passed constitutional changes to ease the ban, but it is now facing a closure case on charges of becoming a focal point for anti-secular activities, with the prosecutor citing its efforts to ease the headscarf ban as one such activity. The EU, which urges Turkey to expand rights for non-Muslim minorities, has rarely mentioned the headscarf ban as a restriction on religious freedoms in candidate Turkey.

Babacan, speaking after talks with EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn and other EU officials on Tuesday and Wednesday, also said Ankara has received assurances from France that Paris will not block Turkey's accession negotiations with the EU during its upcoming term at the helm of the 27-nation bloc.

He said French officials have said talks on more chapters will hopefully be opened during the French presidency of the EU, which starts on July 1. "We have been given assurances that the French presidency will be a normal presidency and they say they hope to continue to open chapters," Babacan said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is a vocal opponent of Turkey's accession to the EU, saying the Muslim country has no place in the union geographically or culturally. In an interview published yesterday in the Polish daily Dziennik, Sarkozy reiterated his long-standing opposition to Turkey joining the EU, saying Europe should have borders and not expand indefinitely.

But the French leader, speaking at a joint press conference with Polish President Lech Kaczynski during a visit to Warsaw, said he would propose an EU partnership with Ukraine that would lead to the ex-Soviet republic's eventual membership. "As head of the European Council I will want to propose a partnership for Ukraine so that it can finally join [the EU]," Sarkozy said. Turkey, unlike Ukraine, is already a candidate for EU membership and began its entry talks in 2005.

Despite Sarkozy's opposition, French officials say Paris will not object to the opening of accession talks on negotiating chapters that are not directly related to membership and that talks on two chapters could begin during its presidency. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who differs with Sarkozy on the prospect of Turkey's accession to the EU, said on Monday that of the 35 chapters, only five were directly linked to accession and that it would take a long time before those subjects were reached. He said he would open talks on as many chapters as possible if the decision were up to him.

Without explicitly mentioning France, Babacan said several times in his recent speeches that Ankara was disturbed by certain countries' attempts to water down membership commitments to Turkey and warned that enthusiasm for reform would wane if the membership goal is not fully in place.

In an address to Turkish and EU parliamentarians late on Tuesday, Babacan said Turkey and the EU were technically ready to launch accession negotiations on several chapters but that talks were put on hold due to political obstacles raised by certain countries.

Babacan also reiterated that the current political tension in Turkey, which reached a peak after the closure case, were normal given the enormity of the transformation Turkey has been going through."There is a radical transformation going on in Turkey. Such radical changes cause some pain, too; they cannot take place quietly," he said, adding that he was confident that the turmoil would eventually subside. "Sooner or later, common sense will prevail as long as the atmosphere of free speech remains," he said.

Rehn, also speaking at the parliamentarians' meeting at the European Parliament, repeated the EU's call for reform in Turkey's judiciary and emphasized once again that the EU expected the outcome of the closure case against AK Party to be in line with democratic principles. "Turkey cannot stand with another [year like] last year. We are expecting progress, not deterioration, in democratic principles and reforms," Rehn said.

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