In a significant move that appears to meet European Union demands, Turkish authorities have announced that they intend to return properties confiscated from religious minorities since 1936, and pay compensation for seized assets that have since been sold to third parties.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the decision Sunday ahead of a dinner in Istanbul marking the break of the Ramadan fast that was attended by representatives of the city’s Christian and Jewish communities – including Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios.
A government decree was issued during the weekend in the face of opposition from the Kemalist CHP and smaller nationalist parties.
“This is not about doing a favour; this is about rectifying an injustice,” Erdogan said of the landmark decision, which concerns hundreds of hospitals, schools, cemeteries and orphanages as listed in a 1936 census.
The European Union, which has regularly scolded Ankara for its treatment of minorities, has set the assets’ return as a condition for membership of the bloc.
The European Court of Human Rights, moreover, has previously condemned the seizures as illegal.
Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox population is today estimated at 2,500 people. Up to 1,500 properties are to be returned to some 70 Christian trusts according to a Kathimerini report, while the Turkish Sabah daily puts the number at 350. Apart from Turkey’s Christians – about 120,000 people – the Armenian, Jewish and Assyrian communities are also expected to benefit from the campaign.
Erdogan’s previous attempts to ensure the return of confiscated buildings in 2002 and 2008 had come up against domestic opposition.
“Like everyone else, we also do know about the injustices that various religious groups have been subjected to because of their differences,” Erdogan told the minority officials.
“The times when a citizen of ours would be oppressed due to his religious, ethnic origin or different way of life are over,” he said.