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.
The Turkish government's decree to return the property of religious minorities is an "historical step", Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Egemen Ba???, who represents his country in negotiations with Brussels, said in a written statement.
"By the amendment of Law No. 5737 on Foundations, a long-lasting issue will be resolved regarding the immovable properties of minority foundations. Immovable properties, cemeteries and fountains that were claimed in the 1936 proclamation by community foundations but had not been registered to foundations will be returned to their rightful owners, provided that an application is made within 12 months," he stated.
In an apparent reference to Greece, Ba??? added:
"We also hope that Turkey's determination to embrace all of its citizens would be an example for some member states that are still reluctant in providing fundamental rights and freedoms for their own Turkish minorities."
German MEP Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, vice-chairman of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament and shadow rapporteur on Turkey, said in a written statement that he "applauded" the Turkish government's decision to return the properties of religious minorities.
He said he hoped this would be a "positive signal" regarding the country's prospects of EU accession.
EU-Turkey relations have a long history. Turkey applied for associate membership of the then European Economic Community almost fifty years ago, in September 1959. It applied for full EU membership in April 1987. In 1999, it was recognised as a candidate country with a number of mainly Eastern European countries which in the meantime have joined the Union, in 2004 and 2007.
The EU agreed in 2005 to start accession talks with Turkey, but only 10 of the 35 negotiating chapters have been opened so far. Talks were frozen in eight chapters in 2006 after Turkey refused to open its ports and airports to vessels and aircraft from EU member Cyprus. Turkey has occupied the northern Cyprus since 1974, when the Turkish military invaded the northern part of the island in response to a coup inspired by the military junta in Athens.
Recent EU reports criticise the Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, on human rights in fields such as freedom of expression, freedom of press, freedom and respect of different religious communities, and the need to find a lasting settlement of the Kurdish issue.
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