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Turkey Announces Return of Properties to Non-Muslim Minorities

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (L) and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend a graduation ceremony at the Air Force war academy in Istanbul, August 30, 2011 (file photo)
Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (L) and Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan attend a graduation ceremony at the Air Force war academy in Istanbul, August 30, 2011 (file photo)

Turkey has announced the return of hundreds of properties seized by the state from Christians and Jews over the past seven decades. The move is being described as a landmark decision for the country's non-Muslim minorities and a major boost to the country's much-troubled bid to join the European Union.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the decision to return hundreds of properties to non-Muslim communities is about righting a wrong made against them. He spoke Sunday at a dinner attended by the leaders of Turkey's Christian and Jewish faiths.

He said the times when a Turkish citizen was oppressed due to his religion, ethnic origin or different way of life are over. He said this is not about doing a favor, but about rectifying an injustice.

The hundreds of properties to be returned include churches, cemeteries and synagogues, as well as schools. If the proprieties were sold to a third party, then their current value will be paid by the state to the original owners. Many of the properties were seized in decisions dating back to 1936, when restrictions over ownership of property by non-Muslims were first introduced. Istanbul's head rabbi, Ishak Haleva, welcomed the return of the properties.

Erdogan said this is a historical day, and he expressed thanks to God.

Decades of discrimination have seen Turkey's non-Muslim minorities collapse, from populations numbering in the millions to only a few hundred thousand. Their presence dates back thousands of years. Once Constantinople - now Istanbul - was the center of Christianity. Today the city still remains home to the spiritual leadership of the Orthodox church, which since the early years of the Turkish Republic, has faced discrimination.

According to political scientist Cengiz Aktar, the return of the properties, the seizure of which continued up until the 1990s, is of crucial importance.

"It's a landmark. It [is a] very important move by the government. Symbolically [it] is very important. It's a decision which is catch-up with the lack of justice of 75 years, so this is a total reversal of this attitude whereby non-Muslims were considered, sometimes openly, as foreigners," said Aktar.

In the Kumkapi district of Istanbul, historical home to many of the city's Christians, the decision is widely welcomed. This man's view is typical. He said they are happy with this move, which is a very positive step. He says this is a decision that will eventually make the non-muslims feel they are citizens of this country, that will make them feel equal.

The decision will help to ease Turkey's much strained relations with Europe. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled against Turkey on the property issue, and hundreds of other cases are still pending. The return of the properties has been a key demand of the European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join. The country's treatment of its non-Muslim minorities remains a key concern. Despite the decision, political scientist Aktar warns there is still much to be done.

"This is just the beginning of the matter. There are thousands of other problems. Not least all the problems, the non-Muslims are facing, for instance to become a public official, to become civil servants. The reopening of the Halki seminary, the top orthodox seminary, is another issue," said Aktar.

Both the E.U. and the U.S. are calling on the government to reopen Istanbul's Halki seminary, which belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church. The seminary has been closed since 1974, and the church says it is important to the training of its clergy. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue again last month during her visit to Turkey.

"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," said Clinton.

But the Turkish government still refuses, saying Greece has to make reciprocal concessions in its treatment of its Turkish minority. Claims of discrimination in state employment of non-Muslims also remains a common complaint in Turkey. But observers say the return of the properties is still seen as a powerful gesture of reconciliation.