Friday, June 18, 2010

Greek Orphanage Returns Minority Real Estates to Spotlight

The Greek Orthodox orphanage now in disrepair at Buyukada is Europe's iggest remaining wooden building. PHOTO by Hasan Altinisk / Hurriyet Daily News

A European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision ordering the Turkish government to return an abandoned orphanage and its grounds back to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate after it was seized in 1995 has again brought attention to the issue of real estate owned by religious minorities in Turkey. From Hurriyet Daily News:
The 112-year-old orphanage, Europe’s biggest remaining wooden building, was built in 1898 as a hotel and casino on the largest of Istanbul’s Princes’ Islands, then purchased by a prominent Greek family that donated it to the patriarchate for use as an orphanage.

“The orphanage was opened in 1903 by Sultan Abdülhamid and remained so for a long time,” Osman Doğru, a law professor at Marmara University, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. “Yet in 1964, it was emptied for security reasons and then left to its destiny.” For almost 30 years, the building simply rotted away. In 1995, Turkey’s General Directorate of Foundations took over ownership – and the court cases began.

“The decision to transfer the orphanage building’s ownership to the foundations directorate was based on the claim that the Greek Patriarchate didn’t do any maintenance work on it. However, it was the Turkish state that didn’t allow any restorations during that period,” said Kezban Hatemi, a lawyer for the patriarchate.

“Such a transfer is legally very problematic, and this case is not the only one,” Hatemi told the Daily News. “Since the 1960s, there have been many violations to the rights of properties owned by minority foundations.”

According to a 2009 report by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, or TESEV, there are approximately 1,000 “immovable properties,” essentially land parcels and buildings, in the country that originally belonged to Greek foundations but were confiscated by the Turkish state.

Foundations administered by other minority groups have been affected as well; some 30 properties belonging to Armenian foundations have likewise been seized, an issue that Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink tried to raise awareness about before his assassination in 2007.

“In 1936, the Turkish government asked all minority foundations to declare their properties. Yet, in 1975, the Supreme Court of Appeals decided that minority foundations do not have the right to hold any property and ordered all properties gained after 1936 to be returned,” Dink once said. “Yet these immovable properties weren’t returned to their [original] donators either, because they were already dead. So many of these properties were transferred to the General Directorate of Foundations.”

According to law professor Doğru, the case of the Büuükada Orphanage was complicated by the fact that the patriarchate claimed the building in 1936, when the government asked minority foundations to report their holdings. “However, the Supreme Court of Appeals found a very creative solution to the issue and said the building was actually claimed by the orphanage foundation, not the patriarchate itself, so they could transfer it to the General Directorate of Foundations,” he said.

After the building was confiscated in 1995, the Fener Greek Patriarchate applied to have the court decision cancelled. When this application was rejected, the patriarchate took the issue to the European Court of Human Rights.

“Minority foundations in Turkey did not have any property problems until the mid-1960s,” said patriarchate lawyer Hatemi. “But this situation completely changed when the Cyprus crisis started during that period. Only then were the declarations of 1936 remembered and minority foundations were used as a tool to gain power over Greece.”
The issue of minority foundations and the property they own is legally complicated and a bit too thorny to adequately get into in a blog post, but the 2009 TESEV report alluded here is an excellent source for further information. The report, "The Story of an Alien(ation): Real Estate Ownership Problems of Non-Muslim Communities and Foundations in Turkey," is authored by Dilek Kurban and Kezban Hatemi.

In spring 2008, the Turkish parliament passed major reforms of Turkey's Foundations Law, under which both the Greek and Armenian minorities are governed, though the reforms are largely argued to have not gone far enough in addressing such issues as real estate.

For more on how minority foundations are governed in Turkey, see also Today's Zaman columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz's two-part op/ed series. In the first part, Cengiz lays out the history of minority foundations, while turning his attention in the second part to the 2008 reforms -- which the CHP, in one of its more overtly nationalist overtures, opposed -- and the current climate for further reform.

No comments: