Judiciary and State Behind Alienation of Non-Muslims in Turkey

ANKARA (Today’s Zaman)–Members of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation introduced a report on Saturday on the obstacles facing ethnic minorities in Turkey, stating that non-Muslim Turks still face “anti-democratic practices.”

Turkey’s non-Muslim communities have been alienated, and it was done by the state and judiciary, said the writers of the new report, which reveals the facts behind the real estate ownership problems of non-Muslim foundations dating from the Ottoman period.

"In the 1930s, it became evident that pushing or directly forcing the few non-Muslims left in Turkey to abandon the country was an explicit state policy," said Kezban Hatemi, the co-author of the report, titled "The Story of an Alien(ation): Real Estate Ownership Problems of Non-Muslim Foundations and Communities in Turkey," which was released on Saturday as part of the democratization program of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV). Speaking at a panel discussion convened to make the report public, Hatemi was referring to various restrictions and conditions imposed through a series of laws, acts and practices.

One example she gave was the Civil Code of 1926 that pruned minority rights granted in the Treaty of Lausanne, which adopted the principle that the status granted to Muslim citizens in terms of religious rights and liberties should also be granted to non-Muslim citizens.

“Only a short while after the Treaty of Lausanne, it became obvious that the state did not intend to implement the rights it was supposed to give,” she said, citing other discriminatory laws and practices including the most detrimental one, the 1936 Declaration, in which non-Muslim foundations were given the status of “affiliated” foundations and placed under the guardianship of the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM), which “played a crucial role in implementing repressive policies” imposed on non-Muslim foundations.

“More than 30 [pieces of fixed property] of the Armenian community were seized, on the unlawful basis that they were acquired after 1936. The Tuzla Armenian Children’s Camp is one of the most striking and heartbreaking examples of the seizure of properties from the Armenian non-Muslim foundations,” she added, pointing out that Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist murdered in 2007, was among the first group of children who built the camp, which he later managed with his wife for many years.

Dilek Kurban, co-author of the report, said that when Turkey became a candidate for European Union membership, it became evident that it was not possible to sustain this state policy toward non-Muslim communities. Kurban started filing lawsuits with the European Court of Human Rights after exhausting avenues within the Turkish legal system.

“It was no longer easy for the bureaucracy to take over the assets of non-Muslim foundations, and the government was expected to take legal action to return or pay indemnity for seized assets,” Kurban said.

The report also pointed out that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which came to power in 2002, made several amendmen’s to the Law on Foundations in order to solve the problem. In February 2008, after strong opposition from nationalist elemen’s within Parliament, a new law was enacted that endowed non-Muslim foundations with new rights, such as the acquiring and disposing of assets and registering assets in their possession. Even though the law falls short of returning all assets that were seized and paying indemnity for assets that have been transferred to third parties, the main opposition parties objected to the law, appealing it to the Constitutional Court.

“It is important to look at which properties these are and to whom they belong,” Kurban said in apparent reference to a historical building owned by non-Muslims that now belongs to the Workers’ Party (%u030P), whose leader was arrested last year for suspected membership in Ergenekon, a clandestine terrorist organization nested within state organs and charged with plotting to overthrow the government.

“I was fighting against a group for 15 years without knowing who they really were. Thank God they are all in prison,” Hatemi said, again referring to the detention of some suspects for alleged links to Ergenekon.

Part of the investigation has suggested that there may be links between Ergenekon and the self-declared “Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate” run by the Erenerol family. On behalf of the Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, based in what is now Istanbul since A.D. 356, Hatemi, an attorney, has long been asking the courts to return four churches confiscated by the fake patriarchate in the mid-1920s.

The Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate once had 90 churches in Istanbul and on the islands of Gokceada (Imbros) and Bozcaada (Tenedos), the deeds of which belong to the foundation of each church.

TESEV’s report indicated that as of November 2008, 24 foundations of the Jewish community were included among the seized foundations, and as of November 2007, 30 real estate parcels of the Armenian community were seized. Two pieces of fixed property of the Catholic community, a church and a building, were also seized.

Opening the panel discussion, TESEV’s democratization program director Etyen Mahcupyan said since domestic avenues have been exhausted, non-Muslim foundations moved their legal battle to Strasbourg. The first ruling was made in a case filed by the Fener Greek High School Foundation of the Greek Orthodox Community and the European Court of Human Rights found Turkey in violation. In 2007, the court ordered Turkey to return the seized property to the foundation or to pay almost 900,000 euros. Other cases followed because of the non-Muslim foundations’ successes.

“While non-Muslim foundations win in the European court, Turkey is losing. And the money is paid out of the taxpayers’ pockets. All Turkish citizens should be concerned about this,” he said.

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