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The interior of the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, one of the highest achievements of Islamic architecture.

Islam is the largest religion of Turkey. More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim, mostly Sunni. The Shia Alevi community, a distinct Muslim sect, make up 20 percent of the population. Christianity (Oriental Orthodoxy, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic) and Judaism are the other religions in practice, but the non-Muslim population declined in the early 2000s.[1][2][3][4]

Turkey is officially a secular state with no official religion since the constitutional amendment in 1924 and later strengthened in the Kemalist Ideology, alongside the Atatürk's reforms and the appliance of laïcité by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk at the end of 1937. To some Turks, Islam is an important part of Turkish life. Its application to join the EU divided existing members, some of which questioned whether a Muslim country could fit in. Turkey accused its EU opponents of favouring a "Christian club".[5]

Beginning in the 1980s, the role of religion in the state has been a divisive issue, as influential factions challenged the complete secularization called for by Kemalism and the observance of Islamic practices experienced a substantial revival. In the early 2000s, Islamic groups challenged the concept of the secular state with increasing vigor after the Erdoğan government had calmed the issue in 2003.

The secular nature of the Turkish republic is also strongly disputed[citation needed], as the state in reality provides huge advantages to the followers of the Sunni Islam, few to other Muslims (as Alevi and Shia), and discriminates all non-Muslims. Thousands of Sunni imams receive state salaries, whereas the other religions receive as good as nothing[citation needed], and whereas the Turkish Orthodox Christians are even prohibited in training their own clergy in Turkey[citation needed].

The fierce nationalism of the Sunni Muslims in Turkey includes frequent removal of any reference to this contentious issue of the privileges given by the Turkish state to their religion[citation needed].



The national mosque of Turkey, The Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul.

Islam is the religion with the largest community of followers in the country, where most of the population is nominally Muslim,[6] of whom over 75% belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. Over 20% of the Muslim population is Shia Alevi.[7] There is also a small Bektashi community belonging to a Sufi order of Islam that is indigenous to Turkey, but also has numerous followers in the Balkan peninsula. Islam arrived in the region that comprises present-day Turkey, particularly the eastern provinces of the country, as early as the 7th century AD. The mainstream Hanafi school of Sunni Islam is largely organized by the state, through the Religious Affairs Directorate, which was established in 1924 following the abolition of the Caliphate and controls all mosques and Muslim clerics, and is officially the highest religious authority in the country.[8]

As of today, there are thousands of historical mosques throughout the country which are still active. Notable mosques built in the Seljuk and Ottoman periods include the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, the Yeşil Mosque in Bursa, the Alaeddin Mosque and Mevlana Mosque in Konya, and the Great Mosque in Divriği, among many others. Large mosques built in the Republic of Turkey period include the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara and the Sabancı Mosque in Adana.

Other religions

The remainder of the population belongs to other faiths, particularly Christian denominations (Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syriac Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant), and Judaism (mostly Sephardi Jews, and a smaller Ashkenazi community.)[9] Turkey has numerous important sites for Judaism and Christianity, being one of the birth places of the latter. Sinced the 4th century AD, Istanbul (Constantinople) has been the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (unofficially Fener Rum Patrikhanesi), which is one of the fourteen autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches, and the primus inter pares (first among equals) in the Eastern Orthodox communion.[10]

There are many churches and synagogues throughout the country, such as the Church of St. George, the St. Anthony of Padua Church, the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, the Neve Shalom Synagogue, the Italian Synagogue and the Ashkenazi Synagogue in Istanbul. There are also many historical churches which have been transformed into mosques or museums, such as the Hagia Sophia and Chora Church in Istanbul, the Church of St. Peter in Antakya, and the Church of St. Nicholas in Myra, among many others.


Republic Protests took place in 2007 in support of state secularism

Turkey has a secular constitution, with no official state religion.[11] The strong tradition of secularism in Turkey is essentially similar to the French model of laïcité.[12] The constitution recognizes the freedom of religion for individuals, whereas the religious communities are placed under the protection and jurisdiction of the state and can't become involved in the political process (e.g. by forming a religious party) or establish faith-based schools. No political party can claim that it represents a form of religious belief; nevertheless, religious sensibilities are generally represented through conservative parties.[12][13] Turkey prohibits by law the wearing of religious headcover and theo-political symbolic garments for both genders in government buildings, schools, and universities;[14] the law was upheld by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights as "legitimate" in the Leyla Şahin v. Turkey case on November 10, 2005.[15]

Beginning in the 1980s, the role of religion in the state has been a divisive issue, as influential factions challenged the complete secularization called for by Kemalism and the observance of Islamic practices experienced a substantial revival. In the early 2000s, Islamic groups challenged the concept of the secular state with increasing vigor after the Erdoğan government had calmed the issue in 2003.

Religious organization

Sultan Ahmet mosque, Istanbul Turkey.

The mainstream Hanafite school of Sunni Islam is largely organised by the state, through the Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi (Religious Affairs Directorate), which controls all mosques and Muslim clerics. The directorate is criticized by some Alevi Muslims for not supporting their beliefs and instead favoring the Sunni faith.

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Patrik) is the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey, and also serves as the spiritual leader of all Orthodox churches throughout the world. The Armenian Patriarch is the head of the Armenian Church in Turkey, while the Jewish community is led by the Hahambasi, Turkey's Chief Rabbi, based in Istanbul. All these groups share the same criticism of the directorate.

Historical Christian sites

Antioch (Antakya), the city where "the disciples were first called Christians" according to the biblical Book of Acts, is located in modern Turkey, as are most of the areas visited by St. Paul during his missions. The Epistle to the Galatians, Epistle to the Ephesians, Epistle to the Colossians, First Epistle of Peter, and Book of Revelation are addressed to recipients in the territory of modern Turkey. Additionally, all of the first Seven Ecumenical Councils that define Christianity for Eastern Orthodox Christians and are also considered as foundational by Roman Catholics and some traditional Protestant churches, took place in the territory that is now Turkey.

Freedom of religion

Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Gennadios II. Mehmed II not only allowed the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to remain active in the city after its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, he also established the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1461, as part of the Millet system. The Byzantines used to regard the Armenian Church as heretic and didn't allow it to operate inside the Walls of Constantinople.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government imposes some restrictions on Muslim and much more on other religious groups and on Muslim religious expression in government offices and state-run institutions, including universities.[16]

Some societal abuses and discrimination occur based on religious belief or practice. Violent attacks and threats against non-Muslims create an atmosphere of pressure and diminished freedom for some non-Muslim communities[citation needed]. Although proselytizing is legal in the country, non-Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Jews face a few restrictions and occasional harassment for alleged proselytizing or unauthorized meetings. The Government continues to oppose "Islamic fundamentalism."[16]

Persons wishing to convert from Islam to another religion sometimes experience social harassment and violence from relatives and neighbors, though the act is legal under Turkish law.[16]

Turkey has a democratic government and strong tradition of secularism. Nevertheless, the Turkish state's interpretation of secularism has resulted in religious freedom violations for many of Turkey's citizens. The 2009 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report placed Turkey on its Watch List' with countries such as Afghanistan, Cuba, the Russian Federation, and Venezuela.[17]

According to the report, the situation for Jews in Turkey is better than in other majority Muslim countries. Jews report being able to worship freely and their places of worship generally government protection when it is required. Jews also operate their own schools, hospitals, two elderly homes, and welfare institutions, as well as a newspaper. Nevertheless, concerns have arisen in recent years because of attacks by extremists on synagogues in 2003 and 2004, as well as growing anti-Semitism in some sectors of the Turkish media and society.[17]

Roman Catholics have sometimes also been subjected to violent societal attacks. In February 2006, an Italian Catholic priest was shot to death in his church in Trabzon, reportedly by a youth angered over the caricatures of the Muslim prophet in Danish newspapers. Prime Minister Erdoğan and other government officials strongly condemned the killing. A 16 year-old boy was subsequently charged with the murder and sentenced to 19 years in prison. In December 2007, a 19 year-old stabbed a Catholic priest outside a church in Izmir; the priest was treated and released the following day. According to newspaper reports, the assailant, who had been arrested, admitted that he had been influenced by a recent television program that depicted Christian missionaries as infiltrators who take advantage of poor people. Roman Catholics also have had their property confiscated by the government.[17]

The Armenian Patriarch, head of the Armenian Orthodox Church, also lacks the status of legal personality and there is no seminary in Turkey to educate its clerics since the closure of the last remaining seminar by the state. As with the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Armenian Patriarchate experiences direct Turkish government interference in the selection of its religious leadership, and the Turkish state also prevents the Armenian Orthodox community, which the State Department estimates at 65,000, from operating an independent seminary. In 2006, the Armenian Patriarch submitted a proposal to the Minister of Education to enable his community to establish a faculty in Armenian at a state university with instruction by the Patriarch. Under current restrictions, only the Sunni Muslim community can legally operate institutions to train new clergy in Turkey for future leadership.

Additionally, the murder of Hrant Dink in January 2007 was also allegedly linked to the Ergenekon group. Dink, a Turkish citizen and respected journalist of Armenian ethnicity whom the Commission met in 2006, had been convicted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code for insulting the Turkish state due to his public use of the Armenian Genocide, a conviction that raised furious protests in the European Union as it was based on grounds that are wholly incompatible with fundamental rights as defined by the European Convention ofor Human Rights. Dink‘s conviction on this charge was later changed to a suspended sentence due to pressure from the EU and other foreign governments. Some reports suggested that Dink had been targeted because he was not a Muslim, indicating that for some religious extremism has fused with extreme nationalism. When Commission members met with Dink in Istanbul in 2006, he referred to the repeated threats against his life, which included references to his identity as an Armenian Christian.[17]


KONDA Research and consultancy

A research firm called, KONDA carried out a survey based on - Religion, secularism and the veil in daily life. The sample of the survey is based on the 2000 General Census and 2002 General Election results. 46,797 neighborhoods and villages have been stratified and grouped according to provinces, regions, educational attainment levels, employment data, census data and election results. The neighborhoods and villages in the sample have been selected randomly by the computer based on population size.[18]

The survey found that the percentage according to the government of the people being Muslims at '99.8%' may not be true. Based on the question of Self-Definitions of Religiosity, 53% as a Religious person who strives to fulfill religious obligations, 34%: Believer who does not fulfill religious obligations, and 10%: Fully devout person fulfilling all religious obligations. The remaining of the population (3%) were non-believers (Someone who does not believe in religious obligations) and atheists (Someone with no religious conviction). Overall, this states that approximately 96.8% have a religion, while 3.2% do not have a religion.

The poll also asked questions related to Islamic Law in Daily Life. Based on an inheritance question, majority of 92% of the people believe: Sons and daughters should get equal shares of inheritance. A lot of people are against men from having a second wife (87%), however against the rights of women to pray next to men during Friday or funeral prayers (75%). Shaking hands between a man and a female is quite common in Turkey in comparison to other Muslim countries, where 61% do believe it is right to do so, whereas 34% believe it is wrong. 69% think Municipalities should organize religious meetings or ceremonies, and 53% believe receiving interest is wrong. Questions based on marriages was also questioned, where a majority of 86% marriages should consist of both civil and religious marriage. In order for children to receive a some sort of a religious education, many believe this should be taught by their parents (44%), and some by Koranic courses (26%) - where many believed this was the best course during a summer vacation, or others preferred foreign language courses.

The worship practices by the people in Turkey:

Frequency of worship Regularly Sometimes Never
Performing ritual prayer 43.9% 41.7% 14.4%
Fasting 82.5% 12.1% 5.4%
Going to Friday prayer (men only) 56.1% 25.0% 18.9%
Going to mosque 24.4% 51.1% 24.5%
Praying 75.2% 22.5% 2.3%
Reading the Qur'an 26.3% 31.2% 42.5%

Covering of a headscarf:

Do you (or your wife) cover your

head when going out to the street?

2003 2007
Not covered
35.8% 30.6%
Covers it
64.2% 69.4%

Other studies

According to a 2003 study by Çarkoglu, Ergüder, and Kalaycıoğlu:[13]:133

Belief Believes No belief No response
God 98.0% 1.7% 0.3%
Sin 97.0% 2.8% 0.2%
Heaven 96.2% 3.4% 0.4%
Belief of Spirit 95.5% 3.9% 0.6%
After life 93.2% 6.3% 0.5%

A Pew Research Center report of 2002 found that 65% of the people in Turkey say religion plays a very important role in their lives.[19]

According to the most recent Eurobarometer Poll 2005:[20]

  • 95% of Turkish citizens responded: "I believe there is a God".
  • 2% responded: "I believe there is some sort of spirit or life force".
  • 1% responded: "I don't believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force".

See also


  1. ^ Country Profile - Turkey, January 2006, United States Library of Congress, 2008-01
  2. ^ "Turkey". World Factbook. CIA. 2007. 
  3. ^ Shankland, David (2003). The Alevis in Turkey: The Emergence of a Secular Islamic Tradition. Routledge (UK). p. 20. ISBN 0-7007-1606-8.,M1. "Some [researchers] claim that the number of Alevis is as high as 30 per cent of Turkey's population. Others state that there are as few as 10 per cent. My own feeling ... offered purely tentatively, is that the proportion of Turkeys' population that today holds itself to be Alevis is ... perhaps nearer to 15 per cent." 
  4. ^ "Turkey - A Brief Profile". United Nations Population Fund. 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-27. 
  5. ^ BBC - Muslims in Europe: Country profile
  6. ^ Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs - Background Note: Turkey...
  7. ^ Shankland, David (2003). The Alevis in Turkey: The Emergence of a Secular Islamic Tradition. Routledge (UK). ISBN 0-7007-1606-8.,M1. 
  8. ^ Basic Principles, Aims And Objectives, Presidency of Religious Affairs
  9. ^ United Nations Population Fund (2006). "Turkey - A Brief Profile". United Nations Population Fund. Retrieved 2006-12-27. 
  10. ^ The Patriarchate of Constantinople (The Ecumenical Patriarchate) by Ronald Roberson
  11. ^ Headscarf row goes to Turkey's roots. BBC News. 2003-10-29.
  12. ^ a b "Headscarf row goes to Turkey's roots". BBC News. 2003-10-29. Retrieved 2006-12-13. 
  13. ^ a b Çarkoglu, Ali; Rubin, Barry (2004). Religion and Politics in Turkey. Routledge (UK). ISBN 0-4153-4831-5.,M1. 
  14. ^ "The Islamic veil across Europe". British Broadcasting Corporation. 2006-11-17. Retrieved 2006-12-13. 
  15. ^ European Court of Human Rights (2005-11-10). "Leyla Şahin v. Turkey". ECHR. Retrieved 2006-11-30. 
  16. ^ a b c "Turkey". International Religious Freedom Report 2007. U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2007-09-14. Retrieved 2008-08-19. 
  17. ^ a b c d
  18. ^ KONDA Research and Consultancy - Religion, secularism and the veil in daily life
  19. ^ "Religion is very important". Global Attitudes Project. Pew Research Center. 2002-12-19. Retrieved 2002-12-19. 
  20. ^ "Eurobarometer on Social Values, Science and technology". European Commission. 2005. pp. pg.11. Retrieved 2007-05-05. 

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