EU Warns Turkey on Religious Freedom

BRUSSELS (Reuters)–The European Commission said on Thursday it had written to Turkey complaining about legislation on religious foundations that did not meet EU standards for the rights of non-Muslim communities.

But the European Union’s executive stressed that the mid-June complaint–which it said Turkey had promised to address in October–did not threaten a planned October 3 start for entry talks.

"Today–Turkey is far from fulfilling all the criteria to be a member of the European Union. Freedom of religion is the highest priority for us and it would be an essential point in the negotiations," Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio told a news briefing.

Turkey is working on a new law meant to ease property restrictions on its non-Muslim minorities–including Orthodox Christians–though EU diplomats have said the current draft does not go far enough.

Istanbul-based Patriarch Bartholomew–ecumenical head of the Orthodox Church–has long complained that his church suffers from numerous petty bureaucratic regulations that prevent it from freely using property it owns.

His calls for the reopening of the church’s Halki seminary on an island near Istanbul have not brought results–and he is worried there will be no home-grown clergy left to minister to the declining Greek Orthodox faithful in a few years’ time.

The EU spokesman’said Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn had contacted chief Turkish negotiator Ali Babacan on Wednesday.

Ankara had already revised the draft bill once–but had not made sufficient changes in the Commission’s view.

"The Turkish authorities are well aware of the importance of this issue–which will be addressed once Turkish parliament resumes its activities in October," the spokesman’said.

He did not detail the objections–but a partial text of the letter seen by Reuters spoke of "serious problems in relation to the management of the religious communities’ foundations–their property rights and the legal personality of communities."

In a Reuters interview last year–the Orthodox Patriarch said: "We have the freedom to perform all our religious services but we have no right to administer our ecclesiastical foundations–churches–monasteries–cemeteries–schools etc."

The German daily Handelsblatt was first to report the recent Commission letter amid growing pressure on Turkey to recognize Cyprus before the start of the EU talks–something Ankara refuses to do.

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