During a dinner highlighted by pomp and circumstance on Aug. 28, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that properties confiscated from minorities after 1936 would be returned.
Partial lists of buildings and houses to be returned were provided through the media, and included properties belonging to the Armenian community (Tuzla Camp, Selmat Han, etc.). Hundreds of immovable properties were announced to be returned to several dozen minority foundations. (If third parties currently own these assets, the net worth of the property will be estimated and the foundations will be compensated accordingly.)
Now some historical context: In 1936, the government had asked minority foundations to provide lists of their fixed assets. In the decades that followed, properties were confiscated by the government for a variety of reasons; these included properties that had fallen into disuse in remote areas. In the 1970’s, as Turkish-Greek relations deteriorated over Cyprus, all minority properties acquired after 1936 were also confiscated. Thus, thousands of fixed assets (buildings, schools, camps, etc.) were transferred to the state.
Reporting on the announcement, international news agencies and several Turkish newspapers failed to mention that only part of these confiscated properties is set to be returned under the new decree. Most of the properties to be returned are found in Istanbul and, in many cases, foundations have already taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights, where—precedents indicated—Turkey was bound to lose.
Hence, Ankara’s initiative looks more like damage control than anything else, and must be followed by broader, meaningful steps.
As a first step, Turkey must return all properties confiscated after 1936 without exception. These include properties across Turkey, even in areas where there is no longer a minority presence.
Moreover, the properties listed account for less than one percent of properties stolen from Christian minorities in the early decades of the 20th century. Turkey should begin the process of addressing that mass-theft by returning church properties confiscated during that period.
In this context, Prime Minister Erdogan’s initiative is a necessary but insufficient step.