ANKARA: ‘Native Aliens’ Become Citizens


Today’s Zaman

Sept 8 2011

Eager to make Parliament work toward a new constitution, the Justice
and Development Party (AKP) government last week did something
revolutionary for non-Muslims in Turkey. The State Advertising
Agency, charged with coordinating ads placed in the media by public
institutions, allocated a fund in the amount of TL 250,000 to resolve
the financial difficulties of minority papers, which was allotted to
four daily and two weekly papers. The funding will remain in place
until the papers can sustain themselves.

The decision to provide this assistance mostly comes out of the
belief that the papers run by non-Muslims and published for their
minority communities are part of the common cultural heritage and
assets of Turkish society. Turkey now appears to be beginning to have
a consistent approach toward its minorities, in light of this support
for minority papers and Anatolian churches that have been restored
and renovated in recent times. But of course, the real indicator of
the state’s approach to non-Muslim minorities is the issue of the
seized assets and property belonging to non-Muslim foundations.

To briefly review the history of the issue, in 1936 the state asked
all Islamic and non-Muslim foundations to declare their property. The
actual goal of this was to subordinate the Islamic foundations to
the Directorate General for Foundations. Many years later, in 1974,
an administrative order required the return of all properties and
assets purchased by the foundations since 1936 to the Treasury. This
meant unjust and illegal confiscation and seizure of thousands of
minority-owned properties because many non-Muslims who had had to leave
the country left their properties to religious foundations. But more
importantly, this decision enabled the transfer of the real estate
and other property of non-Muslim communities to the Treasury, using
the argument that non-Muslims were unable to properly maintain these
assets. By the same legal procedure, a great deal of land owned by
non-Muslims, including cemeteries, was expropriated. In short, the
1974 decision was an extension of the Kemalist policy promoting the
expulsion of non-Muslims from their land and seeking the transfer of
their property to the state.

The AKP government has made some attempts to change the legal
situation, but up until now the Constitutional Court has annulled
these changes. It was the main opposition Republican People’s Party
(CHP) that brought the matter to the court, and the petition was
signed by the present chair of the party, Kemal Kılıcdaroglu. In
its decision, the court referred to a judgment by the Supreme Court
of Appeals in 1972 which argued that non-Muslims were “native aliens”
rather than regular citizens, and for this reason it was only natural
that they encountered some restrictions and difficulties in exercising
their rights with respect to property.

The AKP government did not give up, however: Even though it wasn’t
a perfect solution, the government made a law enabling the partial
transfer of the properties to their original holders. In a meeting
before the most recent election, the Directorate General for
Foundations said that the remaining properties would be either
returned to original owners or they would be paid some sort of
compensation. Back then, many probably believed that this was mere
election talk designed to attract more votes. But the government
honored its promises. By a provisional clause annexed to the law still
in effect, it was announced that the previously seized properties
belonging to minority foundations will be returned to original owners
or, in the case of properties that were resold after they were seized,
the property’s market value will be paid to those who are entitled
to it. A new regulation will be made to ensure that the Ministry of
Finance determines the market price for each property, and within 12
months after the approval of the Assembly of Foundations, these past
injustices will be corrected.

Some may not be able to understand why this decision is revolutionary.

The confiscation of the property of minorities was not only a
fundamental policy of the Committee of Unity and Progress (CUP), but
it was also strictly honored by the republican regime as well. The
incidents against the Jews in 1934, the 1942 taxation of assets, the
Sept. 6-7, 1955 pogrom and the expulsion of the Greeks in 1964 all
actually targeted the property of non-Muslims more than the people. A
lesser-known series of decisions was actually implemented by Mustafa
Kemal in 1926 and 1927. Under these provisions, Armenians living abroad
were banned from returning to the country, and the citizenship rights
of those who failed to remain in Turkey for a certain amount of time
were revoked. After they had lost their citizenship, their property
was expropriated.

The AKP government has staged a silent revolution. Democracy requires
us to advance on all fronts. Non-Muslims are finally being promoted
from the status of “aliens” to that of real citizens.