ISTANBUL — The reasons courts gave for confiscating eight properties belonging to an Istanbul Armenian church between 1987 and 1993 were always the same. According to the deeds, the buildings belonged to St. John and the Archangel Gabriel.
But who were these people?
Judges sent inspectors out to find them, but they came back empty-handed. Now, a new European Union-backed bill on charitable foundations is due to set the record straight.
Passed earlier this month by parliament and awaiting presidential approval, the legislation gives foundations 18 months to apply for the restitution of state-confiscated property.
It also foresees the appointment of a non-Muslim member to the state department that oversees foundations.
“These are positive steps towards wiping out the effects of 1974,” said Diran Bakar, a Turkish Armenian lawyer, referring to a Turkish Appeal Court decision to cancel real estate acquisitions made by non-Muslim foundations since 1936.
Coinciding with the war on Cyprus, the ruling led to the confiscation of at least 4,000 properties belonging to Turkish Greeks, Jews and Armenians.
“Its aim was to dry up the minority communities’ economic resources,” said political scientist Elcin Macar, who thinks that the “founding philosophy of the Turkish Republic never had any space for non-Muslims.”
Brussels has long warned that discrimination will have to stop if Turkey’s EU bid is to succeed. In its annual report on Turkey, it criticized Ankara for limitations to religious freedom.
The bill, however, continues to maintain a distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim foundations.
“This is my country, I see my future here,” said Lakis Vingas, a businessman and one of 3,000 in Turkey’s Greek community. “Yet, when I turn on the TV, it’s immediately clear that I’m seen as a foreigner.”
He is referring to the furious disputes that surrounded parliament’s discussion of the foundation bill. Some deputies insisted the legislation would enable the Greek Orthodox Patriarch to build an Orthodox Vatican in central Istanbul. Others worried that it would involve handing Istanbul’s famed Agia Sophia — once a church, then a mosque, now a museum — over to Greece.
For opposition deputy Bayram Meral, prejudice took a less whimsical form.
“What’s this law about? It’s about giving Agop his property back,” he railed, using a common Armenian name. “Congratulations to the government! You ignore the villagers, the workers and the farmers to worry yourself with Agop’s business.”
Baskin Oran, an analyst who follows minority issues, said he thinks such sentiments are worryingly representative of an increasingly nationalistic parliament.
“Not only will this law not satisfy Europe, it’s highly likely to damage relations further, as just another example of the half-hearted reform process Turkey was criticized for in the report,” he said.