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President Vetoes Minority Foundations Law

December 12 (Compass Direct News) – Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer has blocked a key piece of reform legislation passed last month to broaden religious freedoms in Turkey.

A staunch secularist, Sezer sent the “foundations law” back to Parliament for revision on November 29, the same day the European Commission recommended suspension of eight chapters of Turkey’s negotiation talks to enter the European Union (EU).

His presidential veto puts on hold rising EU demands that Turkey address the long-standing grievances of its tiny Christian and Jewish minorities, less than 1 percent of the population.

Designed to enable the country’s non-Muslim religious minorities to regain their property rights, the controversial bill had been passed on November 9 after months of fierce debate in the Turkish Parliament.

In its final amended form, the bill would have permitted minority religious foundations to reclaim dozens of valuable properties confiscated by the Turkish state over the past 32 years.

Essentially, the law enabled minority foundations to reclaim their confiscated properties from the state within a set 18-month period – including even those registered under the names of saints during Ottoman times, when they were established by imperial edict without a formal charter.

But it failed to address the sticky issue of restitution, significant for a number of properties that have been re-sold to a third party after government expropriation. It also ignored certain properties such as cemeteries and minority school assets that are not under any foundation.

In his partial veto, Sezer declared that nine provisions of the law were incompatible with the Turkish constitution, the 1923 Lausanne Treaty or existing Turkish laws.

‘Reciprocity’ Issues

Even before its passage, the final text of the law had seriously disappointed Turkey’s minority communities, falling far short of EU expectations.

As head of Turkey’s largest Christian community, Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II had publicly criticized the bill in its draft form.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 18, the patriarch declared that the bill’s non-compliance with the “constitutional principle of equality” ensured that it would “bring no solution to this long-standing problem.”

“We have no demand other than that of ‘equal citizenship,’ Mesrob said. “We therefore deeply regret the fact that we were treated as foreigners.” Such an attitude, the patriarch said, could cause Turkey to hold “hostage” its own minority citizens.

The new law also tied religious minority rights to the “international principles of ‘reciprocity,’” which refers to benefits one nation grants in exchange for the same treatment from another nation. The Armenian prelate said the misuse of this concept against Turkey’s own citizens violated both human rights and Article 10 of the Turkish constitution.

Echoing the patriarch’s complaints, Star columnist Eser Karakas wrote on November 5, “What they [drafters of the law] forget here is that the people they want reciprocity for are our non-Muslim citizens,” rather than foreign nationals. “Their understanding of reciprocity is absurd,” Karakas stated. “Reciprocity for them is doing here whatever Greece has done to the Muslim minority in western Thrace!”

Historic Mistrust

Turkey’s restrictions against minority religious properties were forged in the early 1970s, during a climate of deep mistrust dominating relations with its historic arch-rival, Greece. After a failed coup attempt to unite the ethnically mixed island of Cyprus with Greece, a Turkish military operation in 1974 left the island divided into a Turkish Cypriot north and Greek Cypriot south, as it remains today.

That same year, Turkey’s Court of Cassation ruled that minority religious foundations were “foreign” organizations and thus could no longer buy and sell property.

The state then proceeded through lengthy court proceedings to confiscate dozens of valuable Greek, Armenian and Jewish properties acquired since 1936, when the state had required a formal declaration of their immovable assets.

“No matter how one looks at it, this was an unacceptable approach outside all international law and an overt violation of the right to property and inheritance,” Turkish columnist Mehmet Ali Birand wrote on September 27, while the parliamentary debate was raging.

“The proposal being discussed today is nothing but a correction of a mistake – more correctly of an unjust deed – made 30 years ago,” Birand said. “In addition, if we fail to correct this mistake . . . the state will have to pay billions of dollars to the European Court of Human Rights.”

But political opposition parties in Parliament demanded amendments to the bill, insisting that removing property restrictions on non-Muslim minority foundations would boost the minorities’ power and influence and thereby undermine national unity.

Leaders of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) went so far as to join the decades-old litany of Turkish ultranationalists, declaring that the new law could lead to the creation of a “mini-Vatican” in Turkey under the Greek Orthodox patriarch, Bartholomew.

Ironically, Pope Benedict XVI’s meetings with Bartholomew on his historic visit to Turkey in late November further fanned rumors of a plot to set up a mini-state at the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul. President Sezer had vetoed the foundations law the day after he formally welcomed the pope to Ankara.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government can overturn Sezer’s veto by approving the original bill a second time in Parliament, forcing the head of state to sign it into law. But Sezer has one last trump card – he can appeal to the Constitutional Court for a judicial review of the law.

Sezer has frequently vetoed AKP legislation, including some EU-inspired reforms that he believes threaten the secular structure of the state.

“The president’s veto on parts of the bill will hardly be seen as a kind gesture toward Europe, or to local Christians,” the weekly Economist observed on November 30. “If the avowedly Islamist Mr. Erdogan had blocked the reform, it would have been interpreted as a sign of Muslim antipathy toward Christians. Coming from the president, the gesture speaks of lingering xenophobia among Turkey’s secular elite.”