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EurasiaNet reports on ‘Turkey: Making Room for Religious Minorities’

EurasiaNet recently reported on ‘Turkey: Making Room for Religious Minorities,’ written by Dorian Jones, a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

Based in New York, provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia, Turkey, and Southwest Asia.

Turkey: Making Room for Religious Minorities’

October 3, 2011 by Dorian Jones

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With the opening of Turkey’s parliament on October 1 and the start of work on replacing the country’s constitution, members of the country’s religious minority groups are hoping that years of institutional and legal discrimination will come to an end in the not-too-distant future.

“We are expecting to contribute … our ideas and our support to this process,” said Laki Vingas, a Greek-Turkish businessman and the elected representative for 161 non-Muslim minority foundations in their dealings with the Turkish state. “We have seen a big change in the way the government is cooperating with us.”

Over its nine-year tenure in power, the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has tried to distinguish itself from its predecessors by addressing some of the grievances of Turkey’s non-Muslim religious minorities. Reforms, many of which were demanded by the European Union, have included the easing of controls on non-Muslim foundations, the renovation of places of worship and the ending of rhetoric that termed non-Muslims as “yabancı” or foreigners.

“The times when a citizen of ours would be oppressed due to his religious, ethnic origin or a different way of life are over,” Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared this September at a Ramadan dinner attended by non-Muslim minority leaders. “This is not about doing a favor; this is about rectifying an injustice.”

The state’s confiscation of property owned by non-Muslim religious communities, a practice that dates back to 1936, is one of the most contentious issues for Turkey’s Christian and Jewish minorities. “It was a way of stealing, of plundering the wealth of these minorities,” charged Ishak Alaton, a leading industrialist and prominent figure among Turkey’s estimated 25,000-strong Jewish community.

For decades, foundations have been battling in the courts, seeking the return of schools, cemeteries, churches and other properties. “This land was taken from the Armenian Yedikule Surp Pirgic hospital in 1952 because of the old mentality,” said Melkon Karakose, an Armenian community activist, pointing to a sports field run by an Istanbul district government. “Now we are fighting to get it back.”

Karakose has been working on behalf of various foundations in the courts for 25 years. He’s more optimistic now than ever about the chances for change. “Thanks to the new mindset, the government will make sure we get back our lands,” he said.

Justice is likely to come at a substantial cost to the government.

“We are talking about huge [real estate] values. Each case will be an independent case that will be taken court,” warned Alaton, the Jewish community activist.

Vingas, who represents the non-Muslim foundations in their dealings with the state, says there are around 150 properties and buildings that have been identified as eligible for restitution. Many occupy prime locations in Istanbul’s red-hot property market.

Vingas added that Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities would welcome any windfall in valuable property holdings, but cautioned that the issue went beyond money. “It is a right and it is a cultural heritage,” he underlined. “It’s not a matter of how rich the minority foundations will become. But it’s a necessity to [bring] back what belong[s] to your family. The minorities, for almost the [entire] 20th century, have suffered.”

Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, touted the significance of the government’s rhetoric. “This is a total reversal of this attitude whereby the non-Muslims were considered, sometimes openly, as foreigners, “Aktar said.

The government’s willingness to explore restitution does not yet cover the hundreds, if not thousands, of property seizures from individuals, or the takeovers that occurred before 1936. An even more contentious point is confiscation that occurred prior to the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, especially during the World War I-era massacre of ethnic Armenians.

The restitution of property would only be the start of a process that ensures religious freedom for minorities. Both Armenian and Greek churches, for example, have reopened. Yet, the leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul still lack legal status in Turkey. The training of priests also is shaping up as a contentious issue.

The Greek Orthodox Church is pressing for the reopening of the Halki Seminary, which the government closed in 1974. International pressure, including from US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is growing for the reopening. But the Turkish government so far steadfastly refuses, arguing that Greece must make reciprocal concessions to its Turkish minority.

On a day-to-day level, non-Muslim minorities complain that they face discrimination in government employment, including de facto exclusion from the judiciary system, police or military; non-Muslims generally do not hold senior positions in such professions. “The problems would finish when my son can be a ranking soldier, or my niece becomes a police officer,” said Karakose, the Armenian community activist. “After all this happen[s], then the problems can be solved. And I believe this will happen.”

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