This story will strike many readers as odd, but it is nonetheless true. For decades, religious minorities in Turkey, especially Christians, have complained that the state assigns them secret identity codes. Christians maintain that government officials use the codes to discriminate against them when it comes to jobs, licenses, building permits, and so on. Of course, such discrimination would be illegal under Turkish law, which has banned religious discrimination since the Kemalist revolution. And complaints about secret identity codes surely must seem a bit paranoid to outsiders, a kind of conspiracy theory–though, given the genocide of Armenians and other Christians in Turkey 100 years ago, one could forgive Christians for being anxious.
The rumors turn out to be true, however. This month, for the first time, Turkey’s interior ministry acknowledged that the secret identity codes do, in fact, exist. When an Istanbul family tried to register its child at a local Armenian school recently, officials asked the family to prove it had the so-called “2” code. The family had never been notified of any code and inquired what the officials meant. The education ministry passed the buck to the interior ministry, which eventually acknowledged that it indeed categorizes religious minorities by secret numeric codes: “1” for Greek Orthodox Christians, “2” for Armenian Apostolic Christians, “3” for Jews, and so on. The family’s lawyer states that his clients are now “waiting for an official document saying, ‘Yes, your race code is ‘2,’ you can register in an Armenian school.’”
In acknowledging the secret classification system, the interior ministry said the information about religious identity comes from Ottoman records, which the ministry uses in order to help religious minorities exercise their rights under the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. With respect to education, for example, the ministry supplies the codes to school officials so that Armenians can attend Armenian schools. The government no longer collects information about religious or racial identity, the ministry claims.
Minority communities in Turkey are skeptical. If this was all on the up-and-up, why deny for so long that such codes exist? And why hide their existence from the so-called beneficiaries? After all, if the codes are meant to help minorities, you’d want to let the minorities know about them, not wait for local officials to reveal them by accident. And, given twentieth-century history, can anyone blame Christians in Turkey for thinking the codes are used to discriminate against them? The main opposition Republican People’s Party has threatened to make the issue of the secret codes a problem for the ruling AKP. “If this is true,” an opposition leader said, “it is fatal. It must be examined.” We’ll see.