- Associated Press - Sunday, August 28, 2011

ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s government is returning hundreds of properties confiscated from the country’s Christian and Jewish minorities in the past 75 years in a gesture to religious groups who complain of discrimination that also is likely to thwart possible court rulings against the country.

A government decree published Saturday returns assets that once belonged to Greek, Armenian or Jewish trusts and makes provisions for the government to pay compensation for any confiscated property that has since been sold.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was scheduled to announce the decision formally later Sunday when hosting religious leaders and the heads of about 160 minority trusts, at a fast-breaking dinner for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, officials said.

The properties include former hospital, orphanage or school buildings and cemeteries. Their return is a key European Union demand, and a series of court cases also has been filed against primarily Muslim Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights.

Last year, the court ordered Turkey to return an orphanage to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.

Some properties were seized when they fell into disuse over the years. Others were confiscated after 1974 when Turkey ruled that non-Muslim trusts could not own new property in addition to those that already were registered in their names in 1936. The 1974 decision came around the time of a Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

Mr. Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government seeking to promote religious freedoms has pledged to address the problems of the religious minorities. In the past few years, it amended laws to allow for the return of some of the properties, but restrictions remained and the issue on how to resolve properties that were sold on to third parties was left unsolved.

The decree overcomes those restrictions and helps scupper further court rulings.

“There was huge pressure from the European Court of Human Rights which has already ruled against Turkey,” said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a human rights activist and lawyer who specializes in minority issues.

“It is nevertheless a very important development,” he said. “With the return of properties and the compensations, the minority communities will be able to strengthen economically and their lives will be made easier.”

The country’s population of 74 million, mostly Muslim, includes an estimated 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 23,000 Jews and fewer than 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians.

Religious minorities have often complained of discrimination in Turkey, which had a history of conflict with Greece and with Armenians who accuse Turkish authorities of trying to exterminate them early in the last century. Turkey says the mass killings at that time were the result of the chaos of war, rather than a systematic campaign of genocide.

Few minority members have been able to hold top positions in politics, the military or the public service.