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Turkey Moves To Reconcile With Non-Muslim Minorities

Turkish police patrol outside Istanbul's Neve Shalom synagogue after its reopening in October 2004.
Turkish police patrol outside Istanbul's Neve Shalom synagogue after its reopening in October 2004.
ISTANBUL -- Sitting in a teahouse these days is good times for Turkish-Armenian Melkon Karakose. For him, the end of a 25-year struggle may be in sight. Working on behalf of numerous Armenian foundations, he has been fighting for the return of lands and buildings seized by the Turkish state. He has even taken a case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Pointing across the street, he shows his latest battle.

"I love my country. I served in the army. Our roots are here," Karakose says. "The big land across our hospital, the whole world knows that this land belongs to the Armenian Yedikule Surp Pirgic hospital. This land was taken from us in 1952 because of the old state mentality. Now we are fighting to get it back."

He says he's been "fighting in the courts for 25 years" to get those lands and buildings back, which now include a football field and municipal offices.

"We have suffered so much discrimination," Karakose says. "But hopefully, thanks to the new mentality of the government, we will get our land back."

The new mentality to which Karakose is referring is the nine years of rule under the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has introduced a number of legal reforms aimed at resolving the seizure of hundreds of properties and lands by the Turkish state. Since 1936 strict controls had been enforced on the ownership of property by foundations belonging to non-Muslims. Churches, cemeteries, and schools were also among the seizures. But last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while attending a meal with leading figures of the non-Muslim community, promised closure on the controversy with a legal commitment to return all properties.

"The days when a citizen of ours would be oppressed due to his religious or ethnic origin, or different way of life are over," Erdogan vowed. "This is not about doing a favor; this is about rectifying an injustice."

Dwindling Minority

Istanbul and its Neve Shalom synagogue are home to many from Turkey's remaining centuries-old Jewish community. The community dates back to when Jewish people escaping the Spanish Inquisition were given sanctuary by Turkey's Ottoman ruler. They, too, suffered property confiscations. Jewish industrialist Ishak Alaton, a pillar of the community, warns that despite the prime minister's announcement justice will not come cheap or easy.

"We are talking about huge values, each case will be an independent case that will be taken to court," Alaton says. "It will be a long, drawn-out struggle. But at the end of the day we will come to the conclusion that if this property cannot be returned to the rightful owner, they will be compensating the rightful owners, [so] that they will be satisfied."

The return of properties is part of wider process of improving the environment for the non-Muslim minorities under the AKP government.

Earlier this year for the first time, Istanbul's Greek minority, or Rum, as they are called here, held an exhibition celebrating their heritage. Once the community numbered in the millions, now it is down to a few thousand -- the result of discrimination and historical tensions with Greece. This month is the 56th anniversary of a pogrom against Istanbul's Rum population.

'Hidden' Away?

But today, Greeks, albeit in small numbers, are even coming to Istanbul to look for work. One member of the Rum community, Laki Vingas, the elected representative for the minority foundations in their dealings with the Turkish state, says the return of the properties is more than about money.

"It is a right and it is a cultural heritage, this is why...minorities were so insisting for returning the properties," Vingas says. "It's not a matter of how rich they will become the minority foundations, but it's a necessity to hold back what belong to your family. The minorities, for almost the [entire] 20th century they have suffered."

He says that "for many years we have been considered as foreigners, as strangers."

"Everybody was trying to [hide] themselves -- to appear not be a businessman and work for the community and not to be active in front of the media," Vingas says. "Now the Turkish society is much more open, and now things are moving ahead."

But political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University, an expert on minority rights, warns that outstanding issues remain to be resolved, including the return of hundreds of properties seized from individuals. But he says an important step has been taken in addressing decades of discrimination.

"This step forward is a very important and big step, but it's still not enough," Aktar says. "But it shows the goodwill of the government regarding this issue, which is pending since 1936 and more so probably since the inception and the creation of the Turkish Republic. But there are other issues of course. It should be properly followed up, which will make the non-Muslim Turkish citizens really feel at home."

Key Issues Unresolved

At the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, services are being given by one of the few priests remaining. The church is facing a crisis because of the closure of Halki seminary for the last 37 years. The 150-year-old school not only trained Orthodox priests, but also patriarchs and bishops. Pressure to reopen is growing internationally. Last July, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue during her Istanbul visit.

"I hope sometime soon we will see the opening of the Halki seminary that highlights Turkey's strength of democracy and leadership in a changing region," Clinton said.

The Turkish government still refuses, however, saying Greece has to make reciprocal concessions in its treatment of its Turkish minority.

Turkish-Armenian Karakose, too, says there is still much work to be done by the government, but he is optimistic.

"Just like the Ottoman Empire, the government is restoring our identity, but do you think all the problems are being resolved? No," Karakose says. "The problems will finish when my son can be a ranking soldier, or my nephew becomes a police officer. After all these things happen then the problems can be solved. And I believe all this will happen."

Claims of discrimination in state employment of non-Muslims remain a common complaint. But the return of the properties is still seen as a powerful gesture of reconciliation.

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