This article provides important additional background to Niko Efstathiou’s “Islamic Educational Center Planned beside Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Shuttered Theological School” and Fehim Tastekin’s “Are Turkey’s Christians as ‘Fine’ as They Say?” 

TURKEY GREEK ORTHODOX EASTERDespite the world-wide recognition of the status of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians, the government of Turkey will give no legal standing and status to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the historical Holy Center of Orthodox Christianity at the Phanar, in Istanbul. The lack of legal standing and status in essence nullifies property and other fundamental civil rights in Turkey for the Ecumenical Patriarchate which precludes its full exercise of religious freedom.  The Ecumenical Patriarchate cannot own in its name the churches to serve the faithful or the cemeteries to provide for their repose. Since it lacks a legal standing, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is powerless to pursue legal remedies to assert property rights or even seek to repair deteriorating property without government approval.

Instead and in lieu of legal standing, Turkey has established a system of minority (community) foundations for Orthodox Christians and other non-Muslim religious minorities to hold properties supervised and controlled by the Turkish government’s General Directorate of Foundations. The Directorate regulates all the activities of religious community foundations which include approximately 75 Greek Orthodox, 42 Armenian and 19 Jewish foundations. The 1935 Law on Religious Foundations, and a subsequent 1936 Decree, required all foundations, Muslim or non-Muslim, to declare their properties by registering the same with the General Directorate of Foundations.

Through its controls, the government of Turkey has nationalized and/or declared certain Greek Orthodox and other religious minority foundations as non-functioning with no right of appeal. This resulted in the systematic seizure of thousands of properties of Christian and other non-Muslim religious minorities in the years that followed, including thousands of income producing and valuable properties of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. In 1936 the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its churches and institutions, owned approximately 8,000 properties. In 1998, 2,000 remained and today fewer than 500 properties are owned by minority foundations loyal to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, most of which are churches, cemeteries, or other properties which produce no income.

With Turkey seeking accession to the European Union, it sought to improve the property restrictions on non-Muslim religious minority foundations. In this regard, the 1935 Law on Religious Foundations was amended during the years of 2002 to 2008 to allow religious minority foundations, with restrictions, to acquire properties and apply for the return of confiscated properties. Within this historical context, Turkey’s then Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now President), also announced by Decree, not parliamentary law, on August 27, 2011, that 162 recognized minority foundations may apply to regain religious properties declared and registered in 1936 and confiscated from them by the state or they could seek compensation. The Decree provided that applications to regain properties generally had to be made within 12 months—by August 27, 2012— and regulations for implementation were adopted October 1, 2011.

Of the 162 recognized minority foundations, more than 70 Greek Orthodox foundations claimed and timely submitted applications for more than 1200 properties in issue. Of these applications, more than 300 were accepted, and some 900 were rejected. Of the applications that were accepted, few resulted in the actual transfer of title and few were income producing properties. Although disputed by Turkey, religious minorities reported that administration by the General Directorate of Foundations was slow and arbitrary as even accepted applications were not always processed. The August 27, 2012 submission deadline also did not allow sufficient time to submit the required volume of paper work for most of the property applications. This was further complicated by the fact that local Turkish Government offices did not timely respond to requests for title documents which prevented processing within the deadline.

In addition, the Decree is limited. Properties not declared by religious minority foundations under the 1936 law are not covered. Also, certain religious institutions, including Catholic churches, do not have foundations or a legal status and are not covered. Most important, it does not address the properties of seized religious minority foundations that the government took over because of its claim of lack of foundation management or charitable purposes. Further, under the Decree, the determination of compensation, when in issue, is not made by an independent body but rather by the government.

Accordingly, despite Turkey’s claims that the value of properties returned to all non-Muslim religious minorities exceeds one billion dollars, the application procedures in reality proved to be more form over substance. In the end, it was not just the number of properties returned to foundations loyal to the Ecumenical Patriarchate or other religious minority foundations that mattered, but the quality of properties returned. If properties are not income producing, they cannot be properly maintained. In this regard and of most importance, the Turkish government continued to delay or allow the election of religious minority foundation board members to manage the properties. Without functioning religious minority foundations, the return of property is meaningless because the properties, under existing Turkish law, cannot be managed effectively. Turkish law also restricts the eligibility of Orthodox Christians who wish to serve as religious minority foundation board members to manage the foundations. Clergy are not allowed to serve. With the significant decline in population of Orthodox Christians eligible to be elected board members, the religious minority foundations will not be able to sustain returned properties. With the lack of legal standing and status, the government then has the ability to declare the property abandoned and seize the same without compensation.

Read the remainder of this article on Public Orthodoxy.
This article appeared on February 9, 2018 on Public Orthodoxy. Excerpt republished with permission.

The Hon. B. Theodore Bozonelis is a retired State Chief Judge and Secretary of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He is Chairman of the Order’s Patriarchal Properties and Minority Concerns Committee.

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