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Religious minorities speak out

Turkey's religious minority communities are calling on the government to strengthen the rights of independent religious foundations as part of its EU membership bid.

The status of minority religious legal entities was the topic of conversation in Istanbul recently at a conference hosted by the Istanbul Bilgi University Faculty of Law in partnership with the Community Foundations Representative Office and with the assistance of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.

Articles 37 to 45 of the Lausanne Peace Treaty regulate the protection of minorities. They require the government to undertake the full and complete protection of all its citizens, without regard to their religion.

“In particular, they shall have an equal right to establish, manage and control at their own expense, any charitable, religious and social institutions, any schools and other establishments for instruction and education, with the right to use their own language and to exercise their own religion freely therein,” article 40 reads.

But religious minorities say they face challenges in achieving a legal status that would allow them institutional autonomy, freedom to regulate their own staff, or buy property. Patriarchates are unable to open bank accounts because they are denied the right to be “legal entities” under Turkish law.

During his speech at the conference, Deputy EU Minister Alaattin Buyukkaya said the government has returned property valued at $2.5 billion to non-Muslims in accordance with a 2011 decree calling for the return of all confiscated immovable property belonging to minority foundations.

According to the decree, minority foundations have the right to reclaim real property they had declared in 1936, including all cemeteries, foundations and immovable properties. Some applications have been rejected due to missing documents and difficulties determining the exact location of properties.

Earlier this month, the General Directorate of Foundations returned to the Yedikule Surp Pirgic Armenian Hospital Foundation a 42,000 square-metre land plot located in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district. The land, which was seized in 1964, now hosts a soccer stadium, sports complex, and parking area.

In 2010, the government returned the Buyukada orphanage on Istanbul’s Prince Islands to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which ended one of the major problems in minority property rights in line with a recommendation from the European Court of Human Rights.

The orphanage was registered as a property of the patriarchate in 1903, and was again registered as a property of the patriarchate following the establishment of the republic. However, the state later confiscated the building and denied the patriarchate its ownership right on the grounds that the patriarchate was not a legal entity.

Last year the government announced a democratisation package that included a commitment to continue the process of returning properties that were seized from non-Muslim community foundations during the early years of the republic, though it did not indicate any further steps that the government intends to take.

Non-Muslim religious leaders said there remains room for progress. Laki Vingas, a Turkish citizen of Greek descent and representative at the state-run General Directorate for Foundations, said “societies which have not completed their own structural reforms have no guarantee for a bright future.”

“In order to overcome the lack of legal existence and the uncertainties created over the course of 91 years, there is a need to give [religious minorities] freedom of organisation,” Vingas said at the conference’s inauguration speech.

In its latest report on Turkey’s EU accession, the European Commission states that “apart from the non-Muslim minorities recognised by Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne, the Turkish authorities consider Turkish citizens as individuals with equal rights before the law rather than belonging to the majority or a minority. However, this approach, which provides for full equality for all citizens, should not prevent Turkey from granting specific rights to certain citizens, in line with European standards, on the basis of ethnic origin, religion or language, so that they can preserve their identity.”

Mine Yildirim, Freedom of Belief project director at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, said an independent legal status would allow religious minorities to exercise their rights, including the right to property, sign contracts, and establish relations with authorities.

“In line with the international commitments of Turkey, all minority communities have the right to have a legal entity status, and if the state refuses the protection of this right with some justifications on the basis of secularity or national security, it has to justify its legal grounds in accordance with international human rights norms,” Yildirim told SES Türkiye.

“When religious minorities acquire a legal entity status in Turkey, their activities will become much more transparent. This will also mean that their activities will be supervised and that they will be held accountable in respect of human rights obligations,” Yildirim said.

Umut Sahin, general secretary of the Association of Protestant Churches, said almost half of protestant churches in Turkey do not have legal entities, and that from a judicial point of view they are considered non-existent.

“Currently the protestant community in Turkey has one foundation, 28 associations and 15 representative offices that are tied with them. With these foundations and associations, the aims of the community to establish a church is recognised, however no judicial basis is provided to their churches,” Sahin told SES Türkiye.

According to Sahin, non-Muslim religious communities in Turkey should be provided with a legal status enabling them to hire religious staff, collect donations, and give religious training in line with their distinct beliefs.

Tuma Celik, the founder of Turkey’s first Assyrian newspaper, Sabro, agreed.

“The Syriac religious community in Turkey cannot buy a single asset for itself, while during the selection of clergy the state doesn’t give total freedom to the religious communities because it restricts the selection criteria with certain laws,” Celik told SES Türkiye.

“If authorities adopt a new conception of legal entity for non-Muslim religious communities in Turkey by taking their claims into account and by giving them a freer area for practicing their own religion, these communities would feel a greater sense of belonging to the state,” he added.

Celik also said that such a step will encourage some non-Muslim religious communities who immigrated in the past to return with the aim of deepening their cultural and religious identities, while also making economic investments in Turkey.

“As long as such inspiring steps create a sense of ‘we’ among non-Muslim communities, it will lead to further institutionalisation and social cohesion throughout the country,” he added.