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Forum18 (12/13/05) Commentary by Otmar Oehring – Turkey’s Law on Foundations plays a central role in the country’s religious freedom situation, as it directly affects religious communities’ ownership of property. Proposed amendments to the Law – which includes provisions governing “community foundations” for non-Muslim religious/ethnic communities – are facing a tortuous process. It is not even clear if the Ankara parliament will ever approve them. First discussed in late 2002 under the government led by Abdullah Gul in response to pressure from the European Union to bring the Turkey ‘s legal provisions into line with European practices on human rights, discussion has continued under the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As it became increasingly clear that it would be impossible to streamline the existing Law on Foundations, a draft of a new Law was finally prepared including provisions governing “community foundations” for non-Muslim religious communities. But once again these provisions do not satisfy the concerned groups as the amendments they proposed have not been included. Meanwhile the draft was sent to the relevant commission of parliament in May 2005, which was due to decide on the draft before summer this year. This however has not happened up to now.

The changes being proposed would be important for those non-Muslim communities which have “community foundations”, such as the Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Protestant, Bulgarian Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, Georgian Catholic, Greek Catholic, Greek Melkite Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Protestant. In theory any improvement to the Foundations Law would allow them to keep the property they currently hold (often rather precariously) and recover property taken from them over the past seventy years.

Although in the past there were several hundred such foundations for non-Muslim communities owning thousands of properties, the government’s Directorate-General for Foundations now says 160 are recognised by the state (compared to the 208 recognised by the state in 1948). The fate of the remainder and the property they administered remains unclear.

The existing Foundations Law is limited as it covers only some non-Muslim minority communities. The Roman Catholic Church, Protestant Churches (whether historical Churches or free Evangelical congregations), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is and other non-Muslim groups have no such foundations – and are unlikely to be allowed to have any.

Two examples illustrate the complexity of the current situation. The Syrian Catholic Church does not have a community foundation (cemaat vakif) in Istanbul but a foundation in accordance with civil law. This had never before been seen in Turkey , because at the time it was founded, a foundation with a religious purpose could not be set up (see F18News 12 October 2005 So Syrian Catholics in Turkey now have one foundation in Istanbul founded under the Civil Code, and a number of community foundations in the south-east of Turkey .

In December 2000 the Altintepe Protestant Church in Istanbul gained foundation status, which was confirmed by the Supreme Court. However this is not to the liking of the Directorate-General for Foundations, which cannot overturn a Supreme Court decision to grant foundation status, but which has since blocked foundation applications from at least two other Protestant churches.

Yet more fundamentally than the individual cases of some communities, I believe that trying to change the Foundation Law – even by trying to include at least all non-Muslim religious communities within its scope – is not the way to go to introduce full religious freedom into Turkey . The whole legal framework governing religion has to be changed.

Most crucially, the country’s Constitution needs to be changed. At present, its Article 24 covering religion is so narrowly drawn that it protects only the right to worship. It includes no guarantees about the freedom to change one’s faith or to join together with others in religious communities. No guarantee is given of religious communities’ rights to organise themselves freely as they choose, to own property directly, to have legal recognition or to train their own personnel.

The Constitution must include a paragraph in line with Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which guarantees full religious freedom. As the article notes, this right includes freedom for individuals to change religion or belief “and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance”. As well as a constitutional change guaranteeing full individual and collective religious freedom rights, a law is needed explaining this in practice.

The European Commission, in its recent Proposal for the Accession Partnership 2005, specified the following measures for Turkey to take:

“Freedom of religion

– Adopt a law comprehensively addressing all the difficulties faced by non-Muslim religious minorities and communities in line with the relevant European standards.

Suspend all sales or confiscation of properties which belong or belonged to non-Muslim religious community foundations by the competent authorities pending the adoption of the above law.

– Adopt and implement provisions concerning the exercise of freedom of thought, conscience and religion by all individuals and religious communities in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and taking into account the relevant recommendations of the Council of Europe’s Commission against Racism and Intolerance.

– Establish conditions for the functioning of these communities, in line with the practice of Member States. This includes legal and judicial protection of the communities, their members and their assets, teaching, appointing and training of clergy, and the enjoyment of property rights in line with Protocol No 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights.”


If the Constitution was changed and a law was passed that together guaranteed full individual and collective religious freedom rights, it would be very simple to grant religious communities and their entities legal status (something which does not exist at present). There would then no longer be a need for the peculiar arrangements of the Foundations Law.

The government has been reluctant to resolve existing problems caused by the regulations governing community foundations, as it fears it might have to return all the properties seized from Christian and Jewish community foundations since the 1930s. A wave of seizures occurred after 1936, when an inventory of property was drawn up, and again after a controversial 1974 Court of Appeal ruling that all property acquired by community foundations since 1936 was illegally owned. Many of these confiscated properties are now being used by the state for other purposes, but many more have been sold by the state. Some of these seized properties were places of worship, but most were community-owned schools, hospitals or land whose income supported the communities…[Go To Full Story]