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Istanbul Greeks miss EU train

Turkish laws that were meant to harmonise with EU norms still fail to protect the property of religious minorities

George Gilson in Istanbul

AS TURKEY steams towards the start of European Union Accession talks in October, Istanbul’s Greeks say the country’s laws continue to discriminate against minorities.

The 2,000-member community has complained bitterly that new laws designed to protect the property rights of religious minorities have done nothing to help them to retrieve hundreds of properties expropriated by the state over several decades.

Members of the Greek minority charge that properties confiscated over the years by the state’s General Directorate of Foundations are being sold off to third parties in order to prevent the dwindling community from regaining their property under EU rules in the future.

Greeks claim that a new law due to be tabled in May continues to discriminate against religious minorities. That view is shared by the Turkey Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), a non-governmental organisation, which says the draft bill does not meet the EU’s Copenhagen criteria and demands that minorities at least be compensated for confiscated properties. TESEV argues that the draft bill tramples on the basic rights of ownership and of association, and that it unacceptably allows the state to fire an entire board of directors of a foundation.

“You cannot take a community’s property, just because the community does not have enough people to create a governing body. The state says that if you can’t hold board elections, the real estate is ungoverned, so the state declares it state-occupied (mazbut) and grabs it,” Dimitris Frangopoulos, the retired principal of Istanbul’s historic Zografeion Lyceum told the Athens News.

The most recent property seizure was that of a huge, decrepit wooden structure that once served as an orphanage in the upscale resort of Prinkipos island, the only property that belonged directly to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Turkish supreme court revoked the title of the patriarchate, claiming that in 1936 the orphanage foundation was registered as owner, and not the patriarchate, which acquired title to the land in 1902.

The state foundations’ directorate took over the administration of the enormous prime property in 1997, after the patriarchate tried to make a deal to build a 300-room resort hotel there. The patriarchate is planning an appeal to the European Court.

Foundations under siege

All of the property of the Greek communities of Istanbul – their churches, monasteries, schools, community centres and other communal real estate – are owned by minority foundations that fall under the authority of the state’s General Directorate of Foundations (GDF) in Ankara. For decades the foundations have laboured under restrictive laws. A 1935 law required the minorities to register all their foundation properties in the land registry. Title to properties not registered then or acquired later is not recognised, and most have been expropriated by the state.

In 1974, the Turkish supreme court ruled that foundations could not acquire any real estate, a decision that blocked Greek pious foundations from legally gaining title to real-estate donations or bequests from faithful. Thus, properties bequeathed to Greek foundations from 1936 onward were seized by the state, and the wills of Greek donors were annulled.

A 2003 law designed to harmonise Turkey’s legislation with that of the EU reversed the 1974 law, allowing non-Muslim foundations to acquire real estate – though the reversal was not retroactive. Greek foundations submitted 1,647 applications for the state to recognise their ownership of as many pieces of Istanbul real properties. Of these, according to Metropolitan Bishop Meliton of Philadelphia, who handled the matter on behalf of the patriarchate, only 390 were initially recognised by the state, while another 200 were recognised on appeal. “The law does not effectively protect minority property rights. It recognises only property declared in 1936,” Meliton told the Athens News, referring to the land registry law.

But even that law does not wholly protect the foundations that complied. It allows the state to confiscate real estate if a foundation has ceased the active pursuit of charitable activity. “I argued that this is not applicable to non-Muslim foundations,” law professor Ata Sakmar, the attorney for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, told the Athens News in an exclusive interview.

The patriarchate has coordinated the efforts to save the properties of the Greek minority, which views the church as its sole pillar of spiritual and moral support. Sakmar has marshalled legal arguments from as far afield as the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, under which Greece and Turkey agreed to protect minority foundations.

Indeed, under article 40 of the treaty, the recognised Greek minority is granted the right to independently administer its own foundations. But the provision remained a dead letter, and the state has systematically intervened in the financial management of minority foundations and regularly dissolves their governing boards.

Sakmar said that the chief of the Directorate of Foundations claims that “the government is doing its best and that minorities are never happy with what is given”.

“I have to say that the reasons of refusal to register some lands were correct,” Sakmar continued, “because some of the properties we applied for were already sold [by the state]. The legal way to take them back is to go to court, if possible. Secondly, we applied to register some properties which were supposed to be owned by the Greek foundations, but we were not able to produce any evidence of such ownership. Almost half of our applications were hopeless, because we could not prove – with electricity or phone bills or tax receipts – that these properties were used by the foundations,” he said.

Sakmar says 45 foundations have been taken over by the state due to lack of minority residents in the area. He notes that this is due largely to the exodus of Greeks in 1964, when Turkey deported several thousands of Greek citizens who had been living in Istanbul under a prior bilateral agreement. “This is the biggest problem for Greeks: If they have all the rights to acquire property and the state can take over the administration, their rights are not guaranteed,” he says.

EU finds fault

The European Commission”s last report on Turkey’s progress, in October 2004, noted the deficiencies of new laws as far as protecting minority properties. “Religious foundations continue to be subject to the interference of the Directorate-General for Foundations, which is able to dissolve the foundations, seize their properties, dismiss the trustees without a judicial decision and intervene in the management of their assets and accountancy,” read the report. The commission was also critical of the new draft law.

The commission also found fault with a June 2004 law meant to address the problems regarding the election of foundation boards, “which if not held, or not held on time, can threaten their existence and lead to the confiscation of their properties.” Because minority communities have died out in certain areas, the new law allowed for the enlargement of the geographical area in which elections of a foundation board could be held, but only to the adjacent province. Equally importantly, the commission noted that the law left it to the discretion of local authorities whether or not to enlarge the electoral district, leaving the fate of a foundation to the whims of state functionaries.

The Greek community refused to hold board elections under the new law so as to avoid setting a precedent.

The desperation and disgust of the aged teacher Frangopoulos reflects that of the entire Greek minority. “I as a Greek want to donate my property to a Greek pious foundation. What right do you have to take it away?  It belongs to the Greek community. This is my land! The era when we said ”Slay me so that I can become a saint” is over,” he says.

ATHENS NEWS , 01/04/2005, page: A04

Article code: C13124A041

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