Turkish leaders came up with a new ploy last week to impress world public opinion with fake magnanimity toward the country’s long-oppressed minorities.
Prime Minister Erdogan signed a decree last Saturday that supposedly will return hundreds of buildings that belonged to Christian and Jewish community foundations or charitable trusts. There are currently 162 such trusts (vakfs) registered in the Republic of Turkey.
Back in 1936, the Turkish government demanded that all non-Muslim foundations declare their property holdings. In 1974, Turkish courts illegally stripped these foundations from all properties acquired after 1936, and even some that belonged to them before that date. Last week’s decree requested the foundations to submit to the government within the next 12 months the list of properties confiscated from them — now worth billions of dollars — including schools, hospitals, orphanages, and cemeteries. If and when parliament adopts this decree, the Turkish government is pledging to either return the seized properties or pay compensation for those sold to third parties. It is important to note that this decree does not cover the hundreds of thousands of private properties that were confiscated by the Turkish authorities from Armenians and other minorities during and after World War I.
Before anyone starts thanking the Turkish leadership for its “kindness” or “fair mindedness” toward its non-Muslim citizens, one needs to scrutinize Ankara’s motives and anticipate its possible next steps.
Although Erdogan’s ruling party has more than sufficient votes in parliament to pass the proposed measure, no one should be surprised if this “generous” offer is considerably watered down in terms of the number and types of properties it covers and their current value, conveniently blaming these restrictions on the opposition parties. Erdogan’s previous promises to return confiscated properties to minority foundations were mired in bureaucratic red tape, causing lengthy delays and failure to honor almost all requests.
Most probably Turkish officials decided to issue this decree after losing several major property claims filed by Armenian and Greek foundations in the European Court of Human Rights. Clearly, Turkey can ill afford to lose hundreds of similar lawsuits. Adnan Ertem, head of Turkey’s administration of charitable trusts, told Sabah newspaper that by dealing internally with non-Muslim foundations, the government would be able to avoid paying much larger sums, including damages and court costs, should it lose the lawsuits filed in the European Court. Ertem claimed that there are 370 confiscated properties that should be returned to minority foundations.
More important than saving money, Turkey would spare itself the embarrassment of losing hundreds of court cases that would tarnish its reputation in the eyes of the world, particularly at a time when it is trying to join the European Union. In addition, Turkey has already scored a major propaganda coup by merely promising to return these properties. The international media has published glowing news reports of this “magnanimous” Turkish gesture, before a single piece of property has been returned to the minorities. No one should be surprised if Turkey uses this new decree as a propaganda tool to counter recent U.S. Congressional demands for the return of church properties to their rightful owners.
Likewise, no one should be surprised if Turkish leaders brazenly demand that the Armenian, Greek, and Israeli governments reciprocate with a gesture of their own toward Turkey. Turkish officials should be reminded that by returning the confiscated properties they are not doing a favor to the religious minorities. Such misplaced gratitude would be akin to a robbery victim thanking a thief who for selfish reasons decides to return a small portion of what he has stolen.
Even though the Turkish media has prematurely characterized the Erdogan decree as “historic” and “revolutionary,” in practice, it is less enforceable than the Turkish government’s obligations under the Treaty of Lausanne, which provides the country’s Armenian, Greek, and Jewish minorities much greater protection under international law. While domestic laws can be amended at any time, Turkey’s international treaty obligations cannot be restricted by governmental decree. Fearing for their own safety, none of the non-Muslim communities have dared to file a complaint with the United Nations or international courts, despite the fact that successive Turkish governments have violated the provisions of the Lausanne Treaty since its ratification in 1923.
My advice to Turkey’s minorities would be not to withdraw their lawsuits from the European Court of Human Rights until they recover their confiscated properties or receive appropriate financial restitution.