Will Turkey Uphold Freedom of Worship?
ON JANUARY 24, 1973, the military court in Eskisehir, Turkey, handed down a decision that made it a crime to be one of Jehovah’s Christian witnesses. Four Witnesses were sentenced to pay heavy fines of TL 5,000.00 ($357.00) each. Why?
The court held that the four Witnesses had violated Article 143 of the Criminal Law Code. This article prohibits Turkish citizens from joining any foreign international corporation or society without governmental permission. Thus the court, by applying this article in the case of Jehovah’s witnesses, denied their being a religious body. Giving the reason for imposing the severest penalty allowed by the law, the court declared that Jehovah’s witnesses are a very dangerous society because they do not salute the flag or other national emblems, and claim exemption from military service as conscientious objectors. The court maintained that Jehovah’s witnesses are thereby weakening the national spirit of Turkey.
The court’s decision is being appealed. This gives rise to the question: Is there a basis for reversing the decision in favor of freedom of worship?
Yes, Article 19 of the Constitution of the Turkish Republic guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and exercise of religion. But these rights have never been fully granted to Jehovah’s witnesses, although several appeals have been made. They are not permitted to assemble freely for Bible study, but have to live under constant threat of arbitrary police action. Consider what they have experienced:
On October 29, 1968, “Cumhuriyet” newspaper reported that on October 18, in Ankara, fifteen Witnesses, while peacefully assembled to study the Bible, were arrested and charged with subversive activity and attempting to overthrow the government. The case is still in the Court of Appeals.
On May 20, 1971, eighteen Witnesses, when studying the Bible, were arrested in Istanbul and kept for two days in prison. So far no charge has been filed.
“Milliyet” newspaper of May 4, 1972, reported on a trial of ten witnesses of Jehovah before the military court in Ankara. These Witnesses were arrested on June 9, 1971, when meeting in a private home for a Bible discussion. Thereafter they were kept for seven days in a military prison. The trial is still continuing before the military court under the charge of violating Article 143.
According to “Tercüman” newspaper of February 24, 1972, fifteen Witnesses in Ankara were arrested on February 23, 1972. Six of them, three men and three women, including a mother with a six-month-old baby at home, were kept in prison for nine weeks under the charge of subversive activity. No decision has yet been rendered.
In all the aforementioned cases Bibles and Bible literature were confiscated.
Can such treatment of Jehovah’s Christian witnesses be justified? The facts speak for themselves. Jehovah’s witnesses are law-abiding citizens. They follow the Bible’s command: “Let every subject be obedient to the ruling authorities, for there is no authority not under God’s control.” (Rom. 13:1, “Weymouth,” sixth edition) Only when Jehovah’s witnesses are confronted with a governmental law that conflicts with God’s law do they refuse to bow to the will of the secular ruling authority. (Acts 5:29) But in Turkey, as elsewhere, they do not in any way try to hinder people from enlisting in the armed forces nor do they encourage disrespect for the flag of any nation.
While not involving themselves in political affairs, Jehovah’s witnesses do not plot against the governments of the world. They heed the inspired admonition: “With those who are for a change, do not intermeddle.” (Prov. 24:21) No government, therefore, has any reason to fear Jehovah’s Christian witnesses. In an age of increasing violence, their obedience to God’s Word promotes law and order.
Thus, in Turkey, the courts and the government itself face a decision that will reveal how they feel about freedom of worship. Will they recognize Jehovah’s witnesses for what they are—an established religious body rather than a “membership society”? Will Turkey live up to and honor the claims of her Constitution? It is certainly hoped that Turkey will take a positive stand for freedom of worship in harmony with her desire to be counted among the free nations of the world.