The Turkish government’s restrictions on, and violation of, property rights is one of the key grievances of Turkey’s faith communities. The root cause of these grievances is the absence of a regulatory framework that provides full and independent legal status to faith communities in Turkey, which would guarantee them the unhindered right to acquire, own, or rent property.1
There are various legal entities that faith communities use to mitigate the problems caused by their inability to attain legal status. Some faith communities have “minority community foundations,” which date back to the Ottoman era and were registered by the Directorate General of Foundations in 1936. Others have established various legal entities under the Civil Code – such as foundations, associations, and even private companies – in order to acquire property in the absence of legal status. Numerous property grievances of faith communities – including the precarious nature of their ownership of, and access to, these properties – have proven that none of these alternatives can guarantee the property rights of faith communities in the absence of full and independent legal status.
There are three main areas concerning property rights that are at the core of current grievances and the Turkish government’s initiatives to remedy them: restitution, reciprocity, and restoration.
The Turkish government’s efforts to restitute properties to minority community foundations in accordance with the European Union Harmonization Laws of 2003 and the Restitution Decree of 2011 deserve commendation.2 The Directorate General of Foundations has reported that between 2003 and 2014, it registered 1,020 properties to religious minority foundations and paid compensation for 21.3 The gradual, albeit incomplete, restitution of properties previously expropriated from religious minority communities has been an important step in the right direction.
The 2011 decree is limited in scope and excludes, among others, Roman Catholic and Anglican properties since they did not have minority community foundations, Alevi properties, and certain cemeteries. Even when courts rule for restitution, the implementation can fail. A Greek Orthodox foundation in Bozcaada, for example, has not been able to register 11 of their properties, despite winning a court case in 2014, on the grounds that inspections by the land registry office are incomplete.4 Similarly, a court decision to restitute a prominent Istanbul building to the Armenian Patriarchate in 2017, after a six-year restitution case, was overturned by the High Court of Appeals in 2019.5
A specific type of restitution – the allocation of an expropriated property to a faith community other than the original owners – is a policy that grants rights at the expense of other faith communities. In a project stalled since 2013, the Turkish government recently allocated land and a permit to build a Syriac Christian church in Istanbul, the first church to be built from scratch in the history of the Republic of Turkey.6 But the allocated land included a Roman Catholic cemetery previously seized by the state, and the move therefore triggered tensions between Roman Catholic and Syriac Christian communities that were only resolved through the intervention of Pope Francis.7
The policy of “reciprocity,” which makes the granting of certain minority rights conditional on the granting of similar rights in other countries, is another obstacle preventing restitution or use of properties. The Turkish government, for example, has made a commitment to opening the Halki Seminary, the main theology school of the Ecumenical Patriarchate located in Istanbul, in exchange for the Greek government opening the first mosque in Athens.8 Similarly, Bulgarian Orthodox Sveti Stefan Church, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled on January 7, 2018, after a seven-year restoration project, was reported by Turkey’s state-run media to have been “restored under so-called rules of reciprocity” in exchange for Sofia’s green light for the restoration of the mosque in Bulgaria’s second-largest city, Plovdiv.9
The policy of reciprocity makes property rights a conditional right and treats religious minorities as bargaining chips to extract bilateral concessions that serve the Turkish government’s specific agendas. Turkey’s religious minorities have spoken out against this policy. In 2006, over 100 members of Turkey’s religious minorities signed a joint declaration stating that they are not “hostages.”10
Since 2003, the Directorate General of Foundations has allocated funds for the restoration of a number of churches and synagogues.11 The Directorate has reportedly completed restorations of 19 churches, three synagogues, and one monastery, and has ongoing restoration projects and plans for two churches, two monasteries, one chapel, and one synagogue.12
The Directorate’s funding, however, often comes with strings attached, as state officials want to have a say as to not only who can perform religious services in restored buildings, but also when. In 2014, for example, the governor of the province of Edirne threatened to turn a restored synagogue into a museum following tensions in Jerusalem.13