JUNE 3, 2016
On May 24, 2016, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) affirmed the right to freedom of religion for religious minorities in Turkey. The ruling addressed the government’s strict application of its zoning laws to deny Jehovah’s Witnesses official recognition of their Kingdom Halls as “places of worship.”
The ECHR found that Turkey’s zoning legislation allowed for large buildings as “places of worship” but made no allowance for buildings suitable for smaller religious communities. Consequently, Turkey unnecessarily restricted the Witnesses’ ability to worship freely and therefore violated Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. * The ruling stated that the authorities used the zoning legislation to “impose rigid, even prohibitive, requirements on the exercise [of worship] of minority denominations, one of which being Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Zoning Legislation Leaves No Room for Religious Minorities
Jehovah’s Witnesses have a nationally registered religious association in Turkey and have tried for years to have their Kingdom Halls officially recognized as “places of worship” under zoning legislation. However, Turkish authorities consistently refused to recognize Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “places of worship.”
Since the Witnesses cannot obtain the proper zoning, all 25 of their Kingdom Halls in Turkey are under constant threat of being closed and sealed by authorities for noncompliance with zoning laws. The authorities have already closed and sealed Kingdom Halls in Mersin and Akçay for various periods of time since August 2003. In the Karşıyaka district of İzmir, authorities refused to recognize the Kingdom Hall as a place of worship. The Kingdom Halls in Mersin and İzmir became the subject of the May 24 ECHR judgment.
Before 2003, Turkey’s zoning legislation concerning places of worship was specifically written for the building of mosques. During that time, local authorities tacitly allowed the Witnesses to meet in private premises. However, to comply with European standards on nondiscrimination and freedom of religion, Turkey amended its Zoning Law No. 3194 in 2003. Among other changes, the law replaced the word “mosque” with “place of worship” and required local municipalities to have land available for religious buildings.
In theory, the amendments to the law should have provided religious minorities the right to build and own places of worship. In reality, however, the zoning regulations dictate minimum space requirements that assume large numbers of believers and a building design that is tailored to Muslim acts of worship.
Strict Application of Law Obstructs the Right to Have “Places of Worship”
Additionally, municipal authorities have not set aside properties zoned for smaller houses of worship and systematically deny the Witnesses’ requests for a zoning change. When the Witnesses appeal these denials, high courts and administrative authorities rigidly apply zoning legislation and refuse to recognize Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “places of worship.”
In Mersin and Akçay, the municipal authorities strictly applied the new law and closed the Kingdom Halls there because they were not designated as “places of worship.” When the Witnesses asked for an alternative place to worship, the authorities informed them that there were no places zoned for this purpose.
This impossible situation prevails throughout Turkey. It prevents Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious groups with smaller numbers of believers from ever obtaining recognition for the venues they use for religious services. At present, administrative authorities in 27 different municipalities across Turkey have denied all 46 attempts of Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain a formally recognized place of worship. In addition, regulations do not allow the congregations to benefit from the payment exemptions that are provided to formally recognized places of worship for such things as taxes, electricity, or water.
Witnesses Appeal to the ECHR for Relief
Before applying to the ECHR, Jehovah’s Witnesses had exhausted all domestic judicial remedies. The Council of State, the highest administrative court in the land, has never granted a request of Jehovah’s Witnesses to have their Kingdom Halls legally recognized as places of worship under zoning legislation and has even overturned a favorable trial court decision.
Jehovah’s Witnesses thus submitted two applications to the ECHR in 2010 and 2012, requesting the Court to review whether Turkey has violated the European Convention on Human Rights. Adhering to its established precedents, the ECHR highlighted the importance of zoning legislation that allows smaller religious communities to have designated places of worship.
The ECHR noted that “a small faith-based community such as Jehovah’s Witnesses can hardly satisfy the criteria required by the legislation in question in order to have access to an appropriate place to practice their worship.” The ECHR concluded: “The domestic courts had taken no account of the specific needs of a small community of believers. . . . In view of the small number of adherents, Jehovah’s Witnesses did not need a building with a specific architecture but, rather, a simple meeting room allowing them to worship, meet, and teach their beliefs.”
The judgment confirms that Turkey interfered with the religious worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses by refusing to recognize their Kingdom Halls as “places of worship.” Ahmet Yorulmaz, president of the Association in Support of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkey, stated: “We are very happy with this ECHR judgment. We hope that the Turkish government will now recognize our existing Kingdom Halls as places of worship and will direct municipal authorities to apply zoning legislation so that we can obtain houses of worship in the future. By implementing this judgment, Turkey will have taken one more positive step to support the full protection of religious freedom.”
Will Turkey Eliminate Religious Discrimination?
The legal status of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkey has gradually improved in the last decade. In 2007, Turkish authorities registered a religious association for Jehovah’s Witnesses * after denying them this right for over 70 years.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are grateful that Turkey has taken steps to ensure freedom of religion for its citizens. They hope that the ECHR’s recent judgment will motivate Turkey to uphold the right to freedom of religion, which both the Turkish Constitution and international law guarantee. The Witnesses look forward to seeing Turkey comply with the ECHR judgment by granting their 25 existing Kingdom Halls “place of worship” status and by allowing them to establish the houses of worship they will need in the future.
^ par. 3 Article 9 is the right to “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
^ par. 19 The Association in Support of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Turkey was established on July 31, 2007.