Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2017, 13:52 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Turkey

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date November 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Turkey, November 2011, available at: [accessed 14 December 2017]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
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.

Last 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 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.


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.


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.



Minority based and advocacy organisations

Human Rights Association of Turkey
Tel: 00 90 312 466 49 13

Human Rights Foundation of Turkey
Tel: +90 312 310 6636

Institut Kurde
[Paris, France]
Tel: +33 1 48 24 64 64

International Association for Human Rights in Kurdistan
[Weekly information services, Denmark]
Tel: +45 33 13 75 01

Iraqi Turks Association For Culture and Cooperation
Tel: +90 216 532 5455

Kurdish Human Rights Project
[London, UK]
Tel: +44 2074 053 835

Sources and further reading

Amnesty International, Turkey: Escalation in human rights abuses against Kurdish villagers, London, July 1993.

Amnesty International, Turkey: Disappearances and political killings: human rights crisis of the 1990s, London, September 1993.

Amnesty International, Turkey: time for action, London, February 1994.

Amnesty International, Turkey: a policy of denial, London, February 1995.

Andrews, P.A. (ed.), Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey, Weisbaden, Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1989.

Bozarslan, H., Political aspects of the Kurdish problem, in P.G. Kreyenbroeck and S. Sperl (eds), The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview, London and New York, Routledge, 1992.

Bozarslan, H. (ed.), Les Kurdes et les états, Peuples Mediterraneens, nos 68-9, July-December 1994.

Helsinki Watch, Denying Human Rights and Ethnic Identity: The Greeks of Turkey, New York, Human Rights Watch, 1992.

Kaya, N., and Baldwin, C., Minorities in Turkey: Submission to the European Union and the Government of Turkey, MRG Report, London, July 2004.

McDowall, D., The Kurds, London, MRG report, 1991, 1997.

McDowall, D., A Modern History of the Kurds, London, Tauris, 1995.

Moosa, M., Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, New York, Syracuse University Press, 1987, chs 2-4, 10, 38.

Minority Rights Group International, A Quest for equality, minorities in Turkey, MRG, Dec 2007

Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008, MRG Jan 2008

Yalcin-Heckmann, L., Tribe and Kinship among the Kurds, Frankfurt/Main, P. Lang, 1991.

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