The Turkish government will reportedly return properties confiscated from religious minorities since 1936, in a step that seemingly addresses European concerns about the treatment of minorities in the EU candidate member.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an announced the decision on Sunday ahead of a dinner in Istanbul marking the end of the Ramadan fast, which was attended by representatives of the city's Christian and Jewish communities – including Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios.
According to a decree published in Turkey's Official Gazette at the weekend, property taken away from minority religious foundations under a 1936 declaration will be returned to them, the Greek daily Kathimerini wrote.
"This is not about doing a favour; this is about rectifying an injustice," Erdo?an said of the landmark decision, which concerns hundreds of hospitals, schools, cemeteries and orphanages listed in a 1936 census.
The European Union, which has regularly scolded Ankara for its treatment of minorities, had identified the assets' return as a condition for membership of the bloc.
The European Court of Human Rights has previously condemned the seizures as illegal.
Earlier attempts by Erdo?an 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," Erdo?an told 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.
Istanbul's Greek Orthodox population is today believed to number 2,500 people. Up to 1,500 properties are to be returned to some 70 Christian trusts, according to the Kathimerini report, while the Turkish daily Sabah puts the number at 350.
Nazi gold to be returned?
Apart from Turkey's Christians – about 120,000 people – the Armenian, Jewish and Assyrian communities are also expected to benefit from the campaign.
The Jewish Telegraph Agency puts the number of Jews in Turkey at 23,000. The agency quoted Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, as saying that 14 tons of gold had been looted by the Nazis from Europe and acquired by Turkey. Its value is estimated at more than $1 billion.
"It is time for Turkey to come clean. If it wishes to enter the family of European nations, it should take the moral position adopted by the other European states and return to the victims – Jew and non-Jew –- the properties stolen by the criminal Nazi regime," Steinberg said.