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Uproar in Turkey as religious body greenlights marriage with quake orphans

Turks are outraged by the powerful Diyanet religious body ruling it permissible to marry adopted children after thousands were left orphaned by the earthquakes.
YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

IZMIR, Turkey — A ruling by Turkey’s top religious body that it is permissible to marry one’s adopted children created a new flashpoint between the state and Turkish citizens in the wake of a series of earthquakes that left one-seventh of the country under rubble.

With the death toll in Turkey exceeding 43,000 after a series of earthquakes — the most recent striking Monday — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces one of his worst challenges ahead of the elections tentatively scheduled for May 14, though some say it may be postponed a month. The opposition’s main point of attack now centers on many Turks’ complaints that institutions such as the military and the Turkish Red Crescent, which provided crucial aid in past disasters, were rendered ineffective by cronyism or simple inefficiency during Erdogan’s 20-year reign.

The Religious Affairs Directorate, which has grown in prominence under Erdogan, has often been criticized by the opposition, including its billion-dollar budget that is larger than those of many ministries. Its influence reaches many aspects of daily life, including the ever-growing number of religious schools, Quran courses for preschoolers and a TV channel to shape and influence the young. Its fatwas, which provide guidance to believers in constitutionally secular Turkey, and the declarations of its powerful head Ali Erbas have often been criticized by women’s and LGBTQ groups for fueling polarization between conservatives and liberals.

The last controversy is over Diyanet’s edict in response to a question about adopting children whose parents died in the earthquake. The directorate’s High Council of Religious Affairs wrote, “While Islam praised those who aid or take care of orphans, it does not recognize adoption as a legal status.” The three-paragraph text explained that under Islam, adopted children could not inherit from their adopted parents. However, it maintained, there was no obstruction to marriage between adopted children and their adoptive parents, though the topic of marriage was not in the question.

In a country where activists have long fought incest, child abuse and religious wedding ceremonies involving underage girls, the outrage was immediate. The Women's Platform for Equality (ESIK) made a scathing statement accusing the top religious body of “paving the way for child abuse.” ESIK also recalled a past fatwa — now deleted from the website — saying that under Islam, girls can be married at 9 and boys at 12.

A 2017 report by the Heinrich Boell Foundation found that Turkey has one of the highest rates of underage marriage in Europe, with one in five involving a bride under 18. In a recent case, a young woman said that her father, the head of a foundation affiliated with the Ismailaga sect, married her to a 29-year-old sect member when she was 6. According to her testimony, her husband started sexually abusing her soon after the marriage ceremony conducted by her father, then consummated the marriage when she was 8. After over a decade of repeated rape and physical abuse, she filed for divorce and criminal proceedings against her husband and parents. 

Secularist news outlets such as Cumhuriyet and Birgun ran the edict in their headlines, pointing out the discrepancy between the fatwa and the Turkish civil code, which allows adopted children to inherit from their adopted parents and bans marriage between adopted and stepparents and their children. 

The Union of Turkish Bar Associations criticized the edict for violating at least three articles of the Turkish civil code.

Many celebrities joined in the criticism, like singer Murat Boz. “Such statements from Diyanet leave me speechless at a time when we should protect and take care of our children," he wrote on Instagram. "We will follow every one of our children." He said that the statement on marriage and adoption when thousands of children were orphaned “defies logic, common sense and conscience.”

One of the most vociferous criticism came from prominent journalist Fatih Altayli. "What are perverts like you doing in an institution like the Diyanet?” he tweeted. “Go into the porn industry instead.”

In the face of such reactions, Diyanet backpedaled somewhat Saturday. Issuing a second statement, it accused “people of ill will” of distorting what was written. “It is admirable that people want to foster orphans of the quake,” it said, echoing the line of the Family and Social Affairs Ministry. While the second statement said that Islamic scholars agreed that adopted and foster children were not considered kin in Islam, thus reiterating its ruling in softer wording, it underlined that the laws of the country should be respected.

The cautious wording did not calm critics. Women’s groups continued demonstrating against the statement and the Women and Children First Association, an Istanbul-based civil society group, said that it had filed a complaint Monday against both Diyanet and Erbas for incitement to violation of the law and abuse of office.

Diyanet also filed a complaint against Altayli Monday for insulting the people who worked for the institution and inciting hatred and discrimination against the religious body. Altayli responded by tweeting “Kasimpasa,” a Turkish colloquialism meaning roughly, “Kiss my ass.”

Last year, famed singer Gulsen faced trial for inciting hatred after she joked that a member of her band was a “pervert” because he had “studied in an Imam Hatip,” referring to religious secondary schools whose alumni include the president.

Diyanet’s case against Altayli is emblematic of the pressure on news outlets over news related to the earthquake. On Wednesday, the state-run media watchdog RTUK slapped fines on Fox TV for its report that Turkey’s disaster management agency AFAD had prevented aid from nongovernmental groups from reaching earthquake-hit areas. Two other independent stations, Halk TV and TELE1 were both fined and temporarily banned from the airwaves.

The Turkish Journalists Association lashed out at the decision, which it said was a new blow to the press. “It gives a very ominous indication of the pressures to come as we head for elections,” it said.

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