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Turkish Jews praise E.U. approach

Pedestrians walk in front of the 10-month old European Union Information Center in downtown Istanbul. (Yigal Schleifer)

Pedestrians walk in front of the 10-month old European Union Information Center in downtown Istanbul. (Yigal Schleifer)

ISTANBUL, Oct. 12 (JTA) — Turkey’s Jewish community is warmly welcoming a European Union report issued last week that opens the way for Turkey to become an E.U. member, saying it will help propel reforms that will foster democracy and religious freedom. “It’s good news. It means that the” reform “process will continue,” a senior Turkish Jewish community official said. The report took stock of progress Turkey has made on what are called the “Copenhagen Criteria,” E.U.-mandated reforms in a number of areas, including human rights and democratization. The criteria were created in 1999 as part of Turkey’s decades-long effort to join the union. The positive report will serve as the basis for a decision, to be made at a Dec. 17 E.U. summit, on when to begin negotiations with Turkey on its accession. Negotiations are expected to last from 10 to 15 years. Among the issues the European Union is monitoring closely is treatment of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, including the country’s Jewish community, which is estimated to number some 25,000. During a recent fact-finding visit to Turkey, Gunter Verheugen, the E.U. official responsible for enlargement, met with the country’s chief rabbi, Isak Haleva. Answering the questions of E.U. parliamentarians in Strasbourg following the report, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan dealt with the issue of religious minorities, saying Jews and Christians in Turkey are allowed to practice their religion freely. While agreeing with Erdogan, the E.U. progress report also offered some important caveats. “With respect to freedom of religion, although freedom of religious belief is guaranteed in the Constitution and freedom to worship is largely unhampered, non-Muslim religious communities continue to encounter obstacles,” the report said. “They lack legal personality, face restricted property rights and interference in the management of their foundations, and are not allowed to train clergy. Appropriate legislation should be adopted in order to remedy these difficulties.” Turkey’s Jewish and Christian communities have lived for decades under laws that have severely restricted their ability to build new houses of worship and have led to the appropriation of older properties by the state. Among the changes made as part of the E.U.-related reforms was an overhaul of the country’s law governing religious foundations, which eased some of those restrictions. The senior Jewish community official said the issue for Turkey’s Jewish community has never been religious practice, but rather about managing communal life. “Freedom of religion translates into freedom of managing properties, into adding new properties,” the official said. “And in that we’ve seen progress and I attribute that to the E.U. process.” European Jewish groups also welcomed the E.U. report. Cobi Benatoff, president of the European Jewish Congress, said his organization had been discreetly lobbying for several years on Turkey’s behalf, speaking with E.U. officials and parliamentarians. The process of joining the union “requires that Turkey bring its legal system and its democratic system closer to European standards. As this goes on, it benefits all citizens, but especially the Jewish community,” Benatoff said. “In general, Jewish communities thrive in a system like that.” Jews and other minorities in Turkey often have kept a low profile and avoided overt displays of ethnic identity. Due to a combination of legal and social pressures, the Jewish community refrains from public displays that would connect it with Israel or Zionism. Rifat Bali, an Istanbul-based historian who studies Turkey’s minorities, said this aspect of Turkish political and social life may be more resistant to E.U.-initiated change. “There can only be benefit from being a member of the E.U., in terms of being more liberal and multicultural, but the question is how long it takes the society to really change its mind and adopt a multicultural view that is not only limited to ethnic food and ethnic music,” Bali said. “The problem is not from the state downwards, but from the grassroots upwards.”

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