Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey

Application No. 1448/04, 09.10.2007

Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey

Summary of the judgment


The applicants maintained, in particular, that the way in which religious culture and ethics were taught in Turkey infringed Miss Zengin’s right to freedom of religion and her parents’ right to ensure her education in conformity with their religious convictions as guaranteed under Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 (right to education) and Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion). The applicants notably alleged that the course’s syllabus lacked objectivity because no detailed information about other religions was included and was taught from a religious perspective which praised the Sunni interpretation of the Islamic faith and tradition.

Decision of the Court

Article 2 of Protocol No. 1

Firstly, the Court determined whether the course’s content-matter was taught in an objective, critical and pluralist manner. To that end, it examined the Ministry of Education’s guidelines for lessons in religious culture and ethics and school textbooks submitted by the applicants.

It found that the syllabus for teaching in primary schools and the first cycle of secondary school and the relevant textbooks gave greater priority to knowledge of Islam than to that of other religions and philosophies.

In particular, the syllabus included study of the prophet Mohamed and the Koran. Pupils had to learn several suras from the Koran by heart and study, with the support of illustrations, daily prayers. They also had to sit written tests.

The textbooks did not just give a general overview of religions but provided specific instruction in the major principles of the Muslim faith, including its cultural rites, such as the profession of faith, the five daily prayers, Ramadan, pilgrimage, the concepts of angels and invisible creatures and belief in the other world.

On the other hand, pupils received no teaching on the confessional or ritual specificities of the Alevi faith, even though its followers represented a large proportion of the Turkish population. Information about the Alevis was taught in the 9th grade but the Court, like the applicants, considered that the fact that the life and philosophy of the two great Sufis, who had had a major impact on the movement, were only taught at such a late stage was insufficient to compensate for the shortcomings of the primary and secondary school teaching.

The Court therefore found that religious culture and ethics lessons in Turkey could not be considered to meet the criteria of objectivity and pluralism necessary for education in a democratic society and for pupils to develop a critical mind towards religion. In the applicants’ case, the lessons did not respect the religious and philosophical convictions of Ms Zengin’s father.

Secondly, the Court examined whether appropriate means existed in the Turkish educational system to ensure respect for parents’ convictions.

Following a decision by the Supreme Council for Education of July 1990, it was possible for children “of Turkish nationality who belong to the Christian or Jewish religion” to be exempted from religious culture and ethics lessons. That decision necessarily suggested that the lessons were likely to create conflict for Christian or Jewish children between the religious instruction given by the school and their parents’ religious or philosophical convictions. Like the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), the Court considered that that situation was open to criticism: if the course intended to be about different religious cultures, there was no reason to make it compulsory for Muslim children alone.

The fact that parents were obliged to inform the school authorities of their religious or philosophical convictions was an inappropriate way to ensure respect for freedom of conviction. Moreover, in the absence of any clear text, the school authorities always had the option of refusing exemption requests, as in Ms Zengin’s case.

Consequently, the Court considered that the exemption procedure did not use appropriate methods and did not provide sufficient protection to those parents who could legitimately consider that the subject taught was likely to raise a conflict of values in their children. That was especially so where no choice had been envisaged for the children of parents who had a religious or philosophical conviction other than that of Sunni Islam and where the exemption procedure involved the heavy burden of disclosing their religious or philosophical convictions.

Accordingly, the Court concluded that there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No. 1.

Article 9

The Court considered that no separate issue arose under Article 9.

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