Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Dec 6 13:51:52 UTC 2006

Eurasia Insight:


Yigal Schleifer and Nicholas Birch: 12/01/06

Pope Benedict XVIs four-day visit to Turkey, which concluded December 1,
appears to have fulfilled its main aims. It succeeded in promoting closer
ties between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and
repaired the popes image among Muslims. At the outset of his trip,
Benedict XVI sought to cultivate better ties with Turks by offering an
endorsement of Turkeys European Union membership drive. [For background
see the Eurasia Insight archive].

During a subsequent meeting with Ali Bardakoglu, the chief of Turkey's
Religious Affairs Directorate, the pope called for an authentic dialogue
between Christians and Muslims. Such conciliatory words and gestures
helped ameliorate damage done back in September, when he gave a speech
quoting a Byzantine emperor who linked Islam and Mohammed with violence.
[For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The
visit also stimulated dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox
hierarchies. Benedict XVI had a fraternal encounter with Ecumenical
Patriarch Bartholomew I, according to a joint statement. The two pledged
that the churches would work jointly to promote Christianity. We cannot
ignore the increase of secularization, relativism, even nihilism,
especially in the Western world. All this calls for a renewed and powerful
proclamation of the Gospel, adapted to the cultures of our time, the joint
statement said.

Another important aspect of the papal visit was that it raised awareness
about conditions faced by Turkeys Christian minority, including about
3,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, along with another 70,000 Armenians. The
pope, in voicing support for Turkeys EU ambitions, called on Ankara to
promote religious freedom. During a mass on November 29, Benedict XVI
characterized Turkeys Christians as a small minority which faces many
challenges and difficulties daily. Although guaranteed the same rights as
Muslim citizens, Christians and Jews in Turkey have long complained about
the legal hurdles they face.  Working out of a small compound hemmed in by
a working class neighborhood, the Orthodox patriarchate which has been in
Istanbul for 1,700 years, since the city was known as Constantinople,
capital of the Byzantine Empire is the frequent target of nationalist
protests while the occasional grenade has been lobbed over its walls.

Over the decades it has seen numerous properties, including schools and
cemeteries, confiscated by the state. Its theological seminary was closed
down in 1971 and has yet to be reopened, leaving it unable to train its
own clergy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Ankara also refuses to recognize the patriarchates status as ecumenical or
global in reach, saying that it is responsible only for tending its
dwindling Orthodox community in Turkey. Minority rights of non-Muslims are
the issue that we have had the least progress on over the last six or
seven ears. Its a common theme in all the [EU] reports, says Ioannis N.
Grigoriadis, an assistant professor of political science at Istanbuls Isik
University. Other difficult issues have been dealt with more successfully,
while with the issue of non-Muslim minorities that has not been the case.

The recent debate in parliament over a bill regulating the establishment
of minority foundations illustrated for many Turkeys continuing struggle
with the issue of its non-Muslim peoples. Although originally envisioned
as a reform-minded bill that would ease the bureaucratic hurdles and
burdens that minority foundations currently face, legal experts say the
version of the bill that passed offered little improvement over the past.
The legal thinking behind the new [law] is the same, approaching minority
foundations with a lack of trust, says Ester Zonana, a lawyer who advises
Turkeys Jewish community. This new law even takes us a bit back. The new
law, for example, offers no way for minority group to reclaim, or seek
restitution for the thousands of properties schools, churches, cemeteries
and other real estate that have been confiscated by the Turkish state over
the last few decades.

Even more disturbing for some was the tone of the parliamentary debate on
the bill, much of it centering on whether giving greater rights to
minority groups would give foreign powers greater influence in Turkey.
When the question of property restitution came up, some parliamentarians
asked whether allowing Turks of Greek origin to reclaim property could
force Turkey to hand back Istanbuls historic Hagia Sophia, the Byzantine
church turned into a mosque by the Ottomans, and then into a state museum
in 1935. I was very angry during the debate. They were not treating us as
citizens.  Why should I be treated differently than a Muslim? says Mihail
Vasiliadis, editor of Apoyevmatini, a daily Greek newspaper based in
Istanbul. The new law doesnt offer us any solutions. It doesnt solve any
of our problems.

Some representatives of Turkeys Armenian community are more hopeful that
the law can be used to recover eight properties belonging to Istanbul
Armenian church that were confiscated between 1987 and 1993. Its a
positive step towards wiping out the effects of 1974, says Diran Bakar, a
Turkish Armenian lawyer. He was referring to a Turkish Appeal Courts
decision - made as ethnic tensions between Greeks and Turks on Cyprus
spilled over into war holding that real estate acquisitions made by
non-Muslim foundations since 1936 had to be returned to their previous
owners. The ruling led to the piecemeal confiscation of at least 4,000
properties belonging to Turkeys Jews, Armenians and Greeks. It remains
unclear whether the new legislation will ease EU concerns about minority
rights protection in Turkey. The foundations bill was passed by parliament
the day after Brussels released its regular report on Turkeys accession
progress. The report rapped Ankara for making little or no progress in the
areas of freedom of expression and religious freedom.

While freedom of worship was generally respected in Turkey, non-Muslim
religious communities ... continue to face restricted property rights, the
report stated. It recommended that Turkey should remove restrictions
barring the full operation of all religious communities by adopting
framework legislation in line with European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)
case law. The most widespread criticism voiced by minority-group
representatives is that the new law continues to make a distinction
between Muslim and non-Muslim foundations. Legal reform is all very well,
says Lakis Vingas, a businessman and prominent member of Turkeys Greek
community. But mentalities are more important. In Turkey, minorities are
you, and they need to become us.

Its an attitude Diran Bakar illustrates with the story of an acquaintance
who decided to donate property to a charitable foundation in his will. As
required under a 2002 law, he informed the Foundations Directorate. When
the bureaucrat found out he was older than 50, he told him to get a
doctors report attesting to his mental health. Turkish historians trace
suspicion of the Orthodox Church back to the tumultuous period after World
War I, when Greece invaded the nascent Turkish state and the patriarchate
sided with the invaders. As part of their peace agreement, Turkey and
Greece implemented a massive population exchange, although the
patriarchate was allowed to stay in Istanbul.  Armenians are also often
viewed as having designs on gaining back Turkish territory.

In the early days of the Turkish republic, efforts were made to bring all
religious foundations Muslim and non-Muslim under the governments control,
says Elcin Macar, a professor at Istanbuls Yildiz Technical University who
specializes in minority issues. But in the 1960s and 70s, particularly as
the Cyprus conflict became more tense, the Turkish government moved
towards greater restrictions on non-Muslim communities, with Turkish
courts issuing decisions that allowed for the large-scale confiscation of
minority properties. I believe that these decisions were not made in
harmony with the law. They were discriminatory, Macar says. Although he
believes there has been some improvement in the legal standing of minority
communities in Turkey, Macar says that underlying suspicion of them
continues. The minority is still seen as a dangerous thing for us, he


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