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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Turkey : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date November 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Turkey : Overview, November 2011, available at: [accessed 9 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Updated November 2011


The Republic of Turkey reaches from the Balkan region of southeastern Europe to the Anatolian peninsula in southwestern Asia. It shares borders with eight countries and four seas, clockwise from its north-west border is Bulgaria, then the Black Sea, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea and Greece, and the sea of Marmara, going into Turkey's Golden Horn, where the country's second city, Istanbul, straddles Europe and Asia.


Turkey's key minority groups include ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities. The number of people in each group is unknown since the state does not ask citizens to declare their ethnic, religious or other origin in censuses. There is no scientific research on minorities in Turkey. The list below is non-exhaustive; it includes the main minority groups, irrespective of whether they self-identify as 'minorities', and non-conclusive information about each. The quantitative estimates below should be read with caution.

Main ethnicities: Caucasians, (Y) Ezidis, Kurds, Laz, Roma, Turks

Main languages: Arabic, Kirmanji and Zaza Kurdish, Laz and Turkish – the only official language.

Main religions: Alevism, Armenian, Assyrian and Greek (Rum) Christianity, (Sunni) Islam and Judaism.

Officially, the government still only recognizes Armenians, Jews and Rum Christians as minorities (see below), but as used in Turkey, this term denotes clear second-class status.


Turkey within its present border was established in 1923, following the Ottoman defeat in 1918, and from 1919 until 1922, and bitter wars against mainly Greek, French and Armenian attempts to implement Allied plans to dismember Anatolia. Nationalist Turks successfully appealed to Kurds to assist them in the name of the Muslim fatherland, a cause which had great appeal in view of the Armenian Christian threat in eastern Anatolia. The Treaty of Sèvres, 1920, which the Allies had failed to impose on Turkey, had allowed for the creation of a Kurdish state, but at a time when Muslim Anatolia was under threat few Kurds were interested in independence under Allied (Christian) auspices.

However, in 1923 Turkey began to formulate its position on minorities. It agreed a population exchange whereby almost all Orthodox Christians in Turkey were transferred to Greece in return for Greece's (non-Albanian) Muslims, about 400,000 in all. Only a small number escaped this transfer, but the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople remained in the city.

Turkey also negotiated the Treaty of Lausanne, 1923, with the Allies from a position of strength. The Allies pressed for the inclusion of all minorities, for example Kurds, Circassians and Arabs, in the treaty terms, but Turkey refused any distinct status for non-Turkish Muslims. Only Greek and Armenian Christians and Jews were formally acknowledged as minorities.

However, it agreed that 'No restrictions shall be imposed on the free use by any Turkish national of any language in private intercourse, in commerce, religion, in the press, or in publications of any kind or at public meetings' (Article 39) or orally in court. Turkey failed to honour this commitment with regard to Kurdish, Arabic and other minority languages. It also drove most of the small Assyrian and Chaldean Christian communities across the border into Iraq in 1924-5. In 1926 it adopted the Swiss civil code, and renounced the minority rights secured for the Jewish, Armenian and Greek communities. Under pressure, all three formally agreed to this renunciation and were assured that the new code would apply to all citizens without distinction of race, nationality or religion.

Turkey evolved a new state ideology to create a modern state on European lines, based on a single secular national identity. It abolished the sultanate (1922) and the caliphate (1924), thereby removing the Islamic basis on which Kurds had helped defeat the Christian threat. It insisted that all Muslims in the republic were Turkish regardless of ethnic origin. Its concept of Turkishness was based on social and cultural conditioning not ethnicity. Anyone could rise to the highest positions of state so long as they identified themselves as Turkish.

During the nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire had already absorbed large numbers of Muslims from the Balkans and Caucasus as it lost control of these regions to Christian powers. An estimated 750,000 Balkan Muslims sought refuge in Ottoman Turkey in the period 1876-96. Since then at least another one million have migrated from the Balkans, mainly Yugoslavia, partly as a result of the Balkan War 1912-13. Others came later as fugitives from communism. Circassians were expelled from the Caucasus during the Russian capture of that region, 600,000 coming in the period 1856-64, and more in 1877-8, and there are probably about one million people of Circassian or Abkha descent in Sakariya, Bolu, Bursa, Eskisehir, Sinop, Samsun, Tokat and Kayseri. As Hanafi Muslims they share the same religious identity as indigenous Turks. On the whole, Turkey took the view that such people became Turks on settling in Turkey, though a few on the far right believed in ethnic purity and pan-Turanic solidarity, that is, among all Turkic peoples from Turkey through Turkic-speaking communities as far as China.

The state, under its founder, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), brooked no opposition, allowing only one political party. In its drive to modernize, it enfranchised women and encouraged them to play a full part in the life of the state. As in Europe, this aim has only partially been fulfilled. Among conservative citizens of the republic, the status of women is still determined by traditional social values. The state also made items of Western dress compulsory and replaced Ottoman Arabic with a variant of Latin script for written Turkish.

The state saw religious sentiment as one of the greatest threats to its aims. It therefore took direct control of formal Islamic institutions and also proscribed the populist Sufi brotherhood (tarikat) networks, executing religious leaders who defied state will, but were unable to destroy the tarikats once they had gone underground.

Well over 150,000 Bulgarian Turks arrived mainly during the mass expulsion 1950-1. They were deliberately scattered over western and central Turkey to integrate them into the Turkish population but they remained readily identifiable. Another estimated 300,000 arrived in 1989, escaping a forced assimilation campaign in Bulgaria, of whom half subsequently returned.


The status of minorities in Turkey is established by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defines minorities on the basis of religion. It envisions full citizenship rights for non-Muslims and lays on the Turkish government affirmative obligations. The Treaty establishes the supremacy of its provisions in the Turkish legal system. Although Lausanne grants minority status to all non- Muslims, in practice, Turkey has restricted the scope of the Treaty to Armenians, Jews and Rums. This has unlawfully left other non-Muslims, such as Assyrians, Bahais, Georgians, Maronite Christians, Protestants and Ezidis outside the protection of the Treaty.

Turkey has been systematically violating Lausanne since the adoption of the Treaty. However, even the full implementation of Lausanne would fall short of extending legal protection to all minorities in Turkey and meeting their rising expectations. Lausanne's restrictive definition excludes Turkey's numerous ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities. The Treaty falls far behind contemporary international standards. The only other state to rely on a First World War treaty today as a purported reason to limit its duties towards minorities is Greece, which uses the same Treaty of Lausanne to deny the existence of a Turkish minority in Western Thrace.

After nearly 70 years of denial, Turkey was also forced openly to recognize the existence of large Kurdish and Alevi communities. In other words, the pluralism it sought to eliminate in the 1920s has proved stronger than state ideology. The state has pursued its aims since 1923 at the price of widespread human rights abuse.

Turkey discovered the limit to its ambitions to remodel itself along prescribed lines. In 1945 internal disputes forced the government to abandon its one-party system. Opposition parties soon attracted the support of those who had suffered under the Kemalist regime, notably the religious. After that formal and populist Islamic expression regained a strong position in national life and by 1990 was a major electoral issue. Relations between Islam and the state remain unresolved.

The Turkish constitutional scheme 'solves' the question of minorities without ever addressing it. There is no reference in the Constitution to the word 'minority', not even the Lausanne minorities.

There is no legislative framework for minorities in Turkey, either directly through laws granting minority rights or indirectly through an anti-discrimination law. To the contrary, despite significant constitutional and legislative reforms, various laws seek to limit the political, participatory, religious, educational and linguistic rights of minorities.

With the December 2004 recognition of Turkey as an official candidate for EU accession, the issue of minority rights, long-suppressed both by the government and in the collective consciousness of society, was placed openly on the agenda. In seeking to fulfil the minority protection conditionality of the Copenhagen criteria the government enacted a series of constitutional and legislative reform laws implicitly granting ethnic and linguistic minorities certain language rights and making some progress towards protecting the hitherto violated property rights of non-Muslims. However, the government carefully avoided any explicit reference that could suggest an official recognition of minority identities. It made minorities' exercise of their limited rights prohibitively difficult by attaching restrictive conditions to them and by conferring on officials a virtually unchecked authority in adopting secondary legislation.

The government maintained significant restrictions on the use of Kurdish and other minority languages in radio and television broadcasts. The High Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) regulations limit minority-language news and cultural programming to 60 minutes per day, five hours per week on radio, and 45 minutes per day, four hours per week on television. The regulations also require that non-Turkish radio programmes be followed by the same programme in Turkish and that non-Turkish television programmes have Turkish subtitles. The state-owned Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) broadcasting company provided national programming in Kurdish and three other minority languages. The wide availability of satellite dishes and cable television allowed access to foreign broadcasts, including several Kurdish-language private channels.

Mystical Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges have been banned officially since 1925. However, Sufi tarikats and lodges remain active and widespread, and some prominent political and social leaders are associated with them.

Religious affiliation is listed on national identity cards. Some religious groups, such as the Baha'is, are unable to state their religion on their cards because their religion is not included among the options; they have made their concerns known to the government. There were reports that local officials harassed some persons who converted from Islam to another religion when they sought to amend their cards. Some non-Muslims maintained that listing religious affiliation on the cards exposes them to discrimination and harassment. The law restricts religious services to designated places of worship. Municipal codes mandate that only the government can designate a place of worship; if a religious group has no legal standing in the country, it may not be eligible for a designated site. Non-Muslim religious services, particularly for groups that do not own property recognized by the authorities, often take place on diplomatic property or in private apartments. Police occasionally prohibit Christians from holding services in private apartments, and prosecutors sometimes open cases against Christians for holding unauthorized gatherings. Proselytizing or religious conversions are not explicitly prohibited by law, however, many prosecutors and police regarded proselytizing and religious activism with suspicion and have occasionally prevented Christians from handing out religious literature.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Turkey's foreign policy with respect to international treaties seeks to ensure that no minorities other than non-Muslims are given legal protection. If the treaty in question is specifically on minority rights, the policy is one of non-signature, as in the case of the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM). If the treaty is not on minorities per se, but entails provisions granting them rights, then the policy is one of signature with reservations with respect to such provisions. The combination of the Turkish Constitution and foreign policy serves a dual purpose: ensuring that Turkey remains in compliance with Lausanne without granting non-Muslims minority status in the Constitution and preventing the widening or deepening of Lausanne's protection. On the other hand, Turkey's foreign policy vis-à-vis other states, particularly Greece, Iraq and Western Europe, which zealously advocates for the religious freedoms and political rights of ethnic Turks in these countries, points to a fundamental contradiction. It also weakens the sense of citizenship and belonging of its own minorities.

Turkish attitudes and laws on minorities have progressed considerably over the past decade, but many reforms lie ahead if the country's legal framework and practice are to reach international standards. Minority groups including Kurds, Armenians, Alevis, Ezidis, Assyrians, Laz, Caferis, Roma, Rum (Greek Orthodox) Christians, Caucasians and Jews still confront systematic repression in today's Turkey. Officially, the government still only recognizes Armenians, Jews and Rum Christians as minorities, but, as used in Turkey, this term denotes clear second-class status. All other groups have faced intense pressure to assimilate.

Two professors, Baskin Oran and Ibrahim Kaboglu, who drafted a report on minority rights on behalf of a human rights advisory committee affiliated with the prime minister's office in 2004, remain in legal jeopardy. The draft report, which was leaked to the press but never published, called for a far-reaching overhaul of the country's constitution and statutes in order to achieve international standards. It described as 'paranoid' the notion that rights for Kurds and other groups would lead to the break-up of the state. Charges of sedition against Oran and Kaboglu were dismissed on free speech grounds by a court in 2006 but reinstated by an appellate court in September 2007.

In early 2007 the ruling AK Party nominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul – a practising Muslim – for the largely ceremonial post of president, sparking outrage among nationalists and the military. Incumbent President Ahmet Necdet Sezer warned that Turkey's secularism was under threat, and told military officers they had a duty to protect the regime from a move toward radical Islam. Army Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit followed with criticism of the EU and Minority Rights Group for considering groups such as Roma and Assyrians as 'minorities'. A statement on the army website shortly thereafter warned that the army would defend the secular system, which many Turks interpreted as a threatened coup.

Nationalists launched mass demonstrations throughout the spring, with hundreds of thousands rallying in Turkey's largest cities against political Islam. However, early elections in July spurred by the crisis resulted in an absolute majority of parliamentary seats for Prime Minister Erdogan's AKP. For the first time since 1991, Kurds were elected to parliament. Although receiving over half of the vote from the south-east in previous elections, their parties had failed to clear an onerous 10 per cent hurdle that has worked against all minority groups. This time Kurds ran as independent candidates, and 22 were elected, including one Kurdish activist elected from prison who was immediately released due to her newly acquired parliamentary immunity. Following previous criticism that no non-Muslims were represented in parliament, the AKP included four Alevis on their successful list.

Despite a renewed warning from General Buyukanit in August that the military would protect Turkey's secularism from 'centres of evil', the new parliament proceeded to elect reformist foreign minister Abdullah Gul as Turkey's new president.

Turkish liberalism is creating new challenges for old-order nationalists and military-backed secularists. In response to the Dink murder in January nearly 200,000 protesters took to the streets of Istanbul carrying signs reading: 'We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians.' New minority organizations are springing up and fighting for their groups' rights in domestic courts and the European Court of Human Rights. Liberal Turks shifted support away from secular parties and toward the moderate Muslim AKP party in the July elections. One academic liberal Turk who recently joined the AKP told the New York Times ahead of the elections, 'In 50 years, people will write that this was the time Turkey started to come to terms with its own people.'

The EU accession process has been a major magnet for human rights reforms. In July, Amnesty International, in reporting on the continued practice of torture in Turkey despite the government's 'zero tolerance' policy, noted that the situation had improved following legal reforms prompted by the EU accession process. In its 2007 report on Turkey, US Commission on Religious Freedom stated that everyone interviewed for the report, from all religious communities in Turkey, 'stressed EU membership as the most promising means to advance religious freedom and other human rights protections and to drive democracy forward in Turkey.' Within the EU, however, some governments (notably France) and political parties (notably Germany's Christian Democratic Union) oppose Turkey's eventual accession on the basis of religion, which could undercut the impetus for further reform.

Scores of human rights activists, writers, journalists and academics are being penalized under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which criminalizes the 'public denigration' of Turkishness, the Turkish Republic, the Grand National Assembly, the government, judiciary and the military and security services. It was under this law that Armenian journalist Hrant Drink was also tried. According the US Department of State report on Human Rights Practices in 2006 more than 60 writers have been charged under the law since its introduction in 2005. The report notes that 'in September 2005 an Istanbul prosecutor charged novelist Orhan Pamuk with "insulting Turkish identity" in statements he made during a 2004 interview with a foreign publication. Pamuk was quoted as saying that one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds had been killed in the country. Prosecutors opened an investigation of Pamuk after a domestic periodical published a translation of the interview.'

In 2010 there was little improvement in the situation of minorities in Turkey, despite hopes raised in 2009 by the 'democracy opening' programme launched by the government, with the aim of ensuring equality to all citizens and bringing a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question. Promises made by the government in 2009 to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination law and set up an equality body, a national human rights body and an independent complaints mechanism against police forces also came to nothing. In addition, the 10 per cent electoral threshold which prevents many parties, including the pro-Kurdish party from winning seats in the parliament is still in place, despite suggestions from an opposition party to lower the threshold.

The ruling AKP has acknowledged that the changes have not been adequate, and promised to draw up a new constitution that recognized the rights of minorities after the 2011 national elections. A new constitution would present an important opportunity to bring an end to state policy that has sought to assimilate minorities. In June 2011, Erdogan's AKP won a third term, but failed to gain enough parliamentary seats to amend the country's constitution unilaterally.

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