Sunday, February 17, 2008

Foundations Law Clears Parliament, AKP Does Not Back Down

AKP has further enhanced its liberal credentials following a major overhaul of the 1935 Foundations Law, hich addresses the establishment of religious foundations. Since religions, including Islam, do not enjoy recognized legal status, the state governs religious organizations through bodies of law that recognize the legal status of their foundation or association. Religious minorities have long claimed that these laws are discriminatory and now that their arguments are bulwarked by criticism from the EU, there has been in recent years an impetus to eliminate the most discriminatory aspects of the law.

One of the principal issues at stake in the Foundations Law surrounds deeds owned by religious foundations, in particular Christian minorities whose properties have been seized by the state and sold non-transparently. Since Turkey assented to the ECHR, Europe has become involved in settling many of Turkey's historical disputes over confiscated property, especially following a 1974 decision in the Court of Cassation that facilitated state seizure of a number of religious properties acquired after 1936.

AKP attempted to reform the Foundation Law in 2006 and a similar major overhaul passed the parliament only to be vetoed by President Sezer on a series of very technical grounds. As is the case now, support for the new law from religious minorities is mixed. Some see it as providing non-Muslim minorities with more rights than they currently possess, while others fear the law as creating a distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim foundations that could actually harm minority rights. This latter opinion is shared by the much-respected Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV). According to TESEV program officer Dilek Kurban,
“It does not do away with injustices but, on the contrary, paves the way for similar injustices to continue in the future,” she said, citing the clause under the new law that allows the management and properties of non-active foundations to be taken over by the General Management of Foundations. “This was the aspect about the foundations law that we most criticized,” she said, adding that this was applied mostly to the Greek community.

“One of the difficulties arising from the bureaucracy was that these foundations could not elect their directorial board. This was an unlawful application. But this new law ensures the continuity of this application,” said Kurban
The legislation grants non-Muslim foundations rights to receive donations from and collect donations to be sent to foreign countries, engage in international activities, send representatives abroad, and be members of foreign institutions within the framework of the institutions' charters.

Earlier this week it seemed as if AKP might further dilute the bill by making significant concessions to MHP concerning non-Muslim minorities, which has referred to it as the "traitor bill." However, AKP proceeded with the legislation as drawn up last January and used its majority to push the bill through Parliament. MHP's specific concerns largely involve claims that the rights the new law grants are not reciprocally granted to Turkish minorities in other countries (in particular, Greece). Religious minorities find this argument offensive and contend that they are citizens of Turkey and that their rights should not rest of how other countries treat their minority populations. Officials from AKP cited that while Greece does not afford Turkish foundations the same rights provided by the new law, it is time for Turkey to set the bar higher. CHP and the Democratic Left Party (Demokratik Sol Parti—DSP) also opposed the new law.

The measure has long been demanded by European Union officials, but has been mired in controversy because many politicians see it as cow-tailing to demands of Western countries and jeopardizing Turkey's international security. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stepped into a dispute involving the seizure of a Greek school and has affirmed that sections of the 1935 law are indeed a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Passage did not include Article 68 of the omnibus law. Article 68 returns confiscated property to non-Muslim foundations and will be debated next week.

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