ISTANBUL -- The shining achievement of modern Turkey is declared by the darkness around it. In Saudi Arabia or northern Sudan, conversion from Islam is considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death. Even in traditionally tolerant Malaysia, a Christian convert was recently prevented from officially changing her religious status, being informed by a court that "the plaintiff exists under the tenets of Islam until her death." In Turkey, a legal change of religion on your identity card merely requires a notarized letter, and several hundred Christian converts have made the switch.
Yet even in Turkey, religious liberty is the most disputed and troublesome of freedoms. The secular establishment, fearful of accumulated sectarian power, has traditionally denied minority religious groups the right to own property, to provide religious education beyond high school or to train their own clergy. As a result, the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches are slowly being asphyxiated for lack of priests -- and the government has sometimes hastened the process by expropriating church property without compensation. The nationalist yellow press whips up resentment against religious minorities by repeating popular conspiracy theories: that Christian missionaries run prostitution rings or bribe Muslims into converting.
The rise of a more publicly assertive Islam in Turkey has added an unpredictable element to these long-standing challenges. The religiously influenced government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan advocates Turkish membership in the European Union, which would give both Muslims and religious minorities a firmer legal basis for the free exercise of religion. Under pressure from the European Union, Turkey's parliament passed legislation to return some confiscated church property and ratified international treaties that affirm freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Many American conservatives have little use for the European Union, but this is its usefulness: Across Eastern Europe, and now across the Bosporus, it has offered tangible economic benefits in exchange for the acceptance of international standards of human rights. That is more than the American freedom agenda is accomplishing.But even as the legal environment for religion improves in Turkey, rising Islamist influence has caused sudden storms of violence. Seven weeks ago, two Turkish Christian converts and a German citizen were ritually murdered in the southern city of Malatya by killers spouting nationalist and Islamist slogans. Pastors around the country have begun hiring professional security. The Armenian patriarch is followed by a bodyguard even during his procession to the altar -- an unsettling liturgy of fear.
Muslim societies, of course, have no monopoly on religious repression, which is practiced with enthusiasm from Hindu India to Buddhist Sri Lanka to atheist China, where many of the victims are Muslims themselves. But Islam is conducting a lively and sometimes deadly internal debate on religious liberty. Modernist theologians argue for tolerance based on the Koran's assertion that there is "no compulsion in religion." Fundamentalists point to a long tradition of severe treatment for apostates, and they have gained the upper hand in many parts of the Muslim world.
Few things are more frightening in a traditional society than the prospect of the young abandoning the faith of their fathers. For many in conservative cultures, religion is not primarily the belief of an individual but the definition of a community -- not a choice but an identity. The very idea of changing your faith is bewildering to many, like changing your ethnicity or hiring new parents. In Turkey, converts are often referred to as "foreigners" who have repudiated Turkishness itself.
The Malatya murders acted like the flash of an X-ray, revealing some hidden and disturbing trends in a close ally. But the shock of that violence also provoked a counter-reaction. After the murders, Ali Bardakoglu -- the highly respected Sunni theologian who heads the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate -- was asked if missionary work was a danger to Turkey. He replied, "No, it is their natural right. We must learn to respect even the personal choice of an atheist, let alone other religions."
That kind of clarity from a Muslim leader is the reason that Turkey, if it did not exist, would need to be invented.