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İSTANBUL- Non-Muslims praise law to return properties, await its implementation

04 September 2011, Sunday / YONCA POYRAZ DOÐAN, ÝSTANBUL

The title deed for this orphanage on Büyükada Island was returned to the Greek Patriarchate in 2010 after a ruling by the ECtHR.

Non-Muslim groups in Turkey have praised highly the government's recent move to return properties confiscated from religious minorities since 1936, and look forward to the announcement of regulations as to how the law will be implemented.

According to a decree published in the Official Gazette last weekend, property seized from Christian and Jewish religious foundations will be returned to them, and in cases where property belonging to such organizations has been sold by the state to third parties, the religious foundation will be paid the market value of the property by the Ministry of Finance.
The decision was announced before an iftar (fast-breaking dinner) on Aug. 28, attended by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan and representatives of non-Muslim communities in Ýstanbul. Turkey's non-Muslim citizens applaud the move and say the step was expected, since the government has been working on the issue for some time.
“This is a very positive move,” said Rober Koptaþ, editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos. “However, we have to see how the law will be implemented.”
Koptaþ is concerned about how the new regulations will affect some properties belonging to non-Muslims. One of those properties is the Tuzla Armenian Children's Camp, which was built by Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish journalist murdered in 2007. The camp is not among the properties to be returned, as indicated by officials, because under the new regulations the government will not return or reimburse for properties no longer directly held by the state, or from the sale of which the state received no income. The Tuzla camp was bought by the Gedikpaþa Armenian Foundation in 1962, but subsequent to a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in 1974, acquisitions made after the 1936 declaration had no legal validity, and therefore had to be returned to their former owners. As a result, the Tuzla camp was returned to its first owner,” he said, adding that in that case the state did not receive any money from the sale but the transfer was still “unjust,” because the ruling was based on ethnic "discrimination."
Koptaþ also pointed out the need for a more comprehensive solution. “We need arrangements to deal with expropriated property, since those actions may not have been based on fair evaluations in many cases.” Koptaþ was referring to a series of discriminatory practices of the republic targeting non-Muslims. A new law on foundations in 1936, aimed at controlling Muslim and non-Muslim foundations, placed them under the guardianship of the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM), in violation of the Lausanne Treaty between Turkey and Western powers in 1923, which guaranteed non-Muslim communities the right “to retain special education and property rights.” This law also demanded that the foundations, which receive most of their income from rents, declare their sources of income and how it was spent: These are the “1936 Declarations.”
Under the high court's 1974 ruling -- described as “massacring the law” by many human rights lawyers -- non-Muslim foundations lost thousands of properties. The laws on foundations have been altered a couple of times, with new amendments following each other; new laws granted some rights, which were then rescinded by other regulations.
‘Brave step despite ultranationalist tendencies'
Mihail Vasiliadis, editor-in-chief of Apoyevmatini, a Greek weekly newspaper serving the small remainder of the once-sizeable Greek community in Ýstanbul, says the government's move is especially pleasing for Turkey's Armenian and Jewish populations, but the Greeks have a more striking problem.
“The government has taken a very brave step. The prime minister did this despite strong ultranationalist tendencies in the country, but we have cancer and an aspirin will not heal it,” Vasiliadis said. “Let's say we receive the properties back. Who is going to benefit from that?”
Even though the Greek population in Turkey was no less than 100,000 in the 1930s, tension between Turkey and Greece has greatly affected their survival in Turkey. Following the Ýstanbul Riots of Sept. 6-7, 1955, and the 1964 deportation of roughly 12,000 ethnic Greeks without Turkish citizenship, the Greek population has been in constant decline. Vasiliadis says that by 1966, the Greek population in Ýstanbul was reduced to less than 30,000, and it has been diminishing ever since, so much so that it is now close to the point of extinction.
“We now have more deaths than births. Our religious ceremonies are attended by a few people, and we are elated if there are five or six students in our schools,” he added. Vasiliadis suggests that the Turkish government, “in memory of the deported ethnic Greeks,” give work and residence permits to Greek citizens who live abroad and who are willing to come to Turkey and be integrated into the country's small Greek Orthodox community.
‘Syriacs and Turkish Protestants excluded'
In addition, there is the issue of the Greek Orthodox seminary on Heybeliada, which remains closed despite international calls for its reopening. The European Court of Human Rights last year ordered the Turkish government to re-register a historic Orthodox orphanage to the Ýstanbul-based Fener Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate, and also told Ankara to pay 26,000 euros to the patriarchate for both non-pecuniary damages and costs and expenses.
Turkey's population of nearly 70 million, mostly Muslim, includes about 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 23,000 Jews and about 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians. While Armenian groups have 52 and Jewish groups have 17 foundations, Greeks have 75. Some of the properties seized from those foundations include hospitals, schools and cemeteries.
Meanwhile, 15,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians also live in Turkey, along with several other smaller religious minorities. Although the 1923 treaty allowed “non-Muslims” to retain special education and property rights, within Turkey's arbitrary definition of the concept of a “minority,” Syriacs and Turkish Protestants have been excluded from the legal arena.
Researcher and writer Nail Güleryüz, a Turkish citizen of Jewish background, said the government's decision to return properties belonging to non-Muslims is a positive one. Implementation of the law is key for him, too. “It is likely that some groups will be critical of the decision, but political will is key to implementing the law. I have no doubt that the implementation will be in line with the spirit of the law,” he said.
Laki Vingas, a council member at the General Directorate of Non-Muslim Minority Foundations and a Turkish citizen of Greek origin, recalled that in 2008 about 100 properties belonging to non-Muslims were given back, and legal problems related to about 50 properties were solved. There were applications for the return of about 1,400 properties in 2008. Recently, the VGM said about 200 more properties are likely to be returned.
‘Gov't decisive on religious freedom'
“The government, especially Prime Minister Erdoðan, is decisive on the issue,” he said. “We are going forward with each decision, each step. We, the non-Muslims, feel more like citizens of this country.”
Recent developments in the area of religious freedoms in Turkey, such as last year's historic service at the Sümela Monastery in the Black Sea coastal province of Trabzon, and another historic day of worship at an Armenian church in eastern Turkey, have raised expectations for a more democratic future in the country despite their shortcomings.
“If you consider Turkey's deep-rooted minority policies, this decree from the government can be seen as a kind of revolution,” said human rights lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz. Highly critical of the government in the past for not having taken “permanent steps” to address minority issues, Cengiz said returning non-Muslims' property is an irreversible step and marks a turning point in Turkey. He also noted that not only the property but also the management of the “seized foundations” were taken over by the VGM, even though Turkey has been in the process of seeking accession to the EU.
The European Commission quickly welcomed the most recent government decree, and stated that the commission welcomes Turkey's new legislation for the return of properties to religious foundations. “The commission will monitor closely the implementation of the new legislation, in contact with both the Turkish authorities and the non-Muslim religious communities,” a statement released by EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle said on Aug. 29.


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