Published: 11:00 GMT Daylight Time - Monday 12 September 2011
Turkey’s pledge to return Christian property slammed as a “smokescreen”
An Armenian rights’ group has condemned plans by the Turkish government to return confiscated Christian property as a “smokescreen” to avoid the consequences of Turkey’s “brutal acts” against Christians in the past.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) spoke out following the publication of a decree by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 27 August declaring that many of the assets seized from Turkey’s Christian and Jewish minorities since 1936 will be returned. The draft law also makes provisions for the government to pay compensation for any confiscated property that has since been sold on.
According to an initial calculation, 1,000 properties would be restored to Greek Orthodox Christians and 100 to the Armenians; Chaldean Catholics and Jews would also receive back a number of buildings.
Turkey has come under pressure from the European Union, of which it is bidding to become a full member, to return properties, which include former hospitals, orphanages, school buildings and cemeteries. A series of cases has also been filed against it at the European Court of Human Rights.
Though a seemingly welcome development in a country that has a long legacy of anti-Christian hostility, the decree has been criticised by the ANCA for its limited scope and suspect motives.
It does not provide for the restitution of property lost before 1936, which includes everything confiscated during the Armenian genocide of 1894 to 1923, when more than 1.5m Armenian and Assyrian Christians were killed. There were more than 2,000 Armenian churches operating in what is modern-day Turkey before 1915, which was the bloodiest year of the campaign.
ANCA chairman Ken Hachikian said that the decree would return only a small percentage of the churches and church properties confiscated during the Armenian genocide and subsequent decades. And he said that the move had clearly been prompted by increased scrutiny by the US Congress of Turkey’s repression of its Christian minority and successive losses at the European Court of Human Rights.
Mr Hachikian said:
Ninety six years after the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians, Greeks and Syriacs, this decree is a smokescreen to evade the much broader consequences of those brutal acts.
He said that the Turkish Government needed to come to terms with its brutal past, respect the religious freedom of surviving Christian communities and return the “fruits of its crime”.
At a meeting with representatives of religious minorities, Prime Minister Erdogan said:
Like everyone else, we also do know about the injustices that different religious groups have been subjected to because of their differences... Times that a citizen of ours would be oppressed due to his religion, ethnic origin or different way of life are over.
But Turkey clearly has a long way to go regarding the treatment of its religious minorities, and although the country is currently going through a process of constitutional reform, no attention has yet been given to religious freedom.
Christians and other religious minorities in Turkey face legal restrictions on matters including education, places of worship and wider property rights. The authorities interfere with churches’ internal governance and refuse to allow non-Muslim clergy to be trained in the country. Christians are subject to widespread prejudice and suspicion with converts from Islam especially vulnerable to harassment and sometimes violence.
Despite Turkey’s long Christian heritage, stretching back to Biblical times, it is now overwhelmingly Muslim, and Christians now number only around 0.1 per cent of the population. One Christian leader described it as an “endangered species” in the country.