VARTHOLOMEOS, ecumenical patriarch and archbishop of Constantinople, is wont to call the 2,000-strong Greek community of Istanbul a "drop in the ocean".
ISTANBUL GREEKS SEEK JUSTICE IN LAND CLAIMS
Turkey is trying to bring its laws on minorities in tune with those of the EU, but ethnic Greeks living in the capital say they are victimized through unfair land expropriations.
By George Gilson - Athens News
Shrunken and scarred by the violent vicissitudes of Greek-Turkish relations over the decades, that drop is now in danger of evaporating. Despite reforms for the protection of minorities intended to bring Turkey in line with European Union law, the leaders of Istanbul's Greek community are struggling for basic rights.
That includes establishing the legal grounds to claim back around 400 pieces of prime Istanbul real estate gradually confiscated by the Turkish state since 1974. "The confiscated property was certainly worth billions of dollars. We are talking about entire apartment buildings and tracts of city land that produced significant revenues," says Vasslis Kalamaris, an attorney for the patriarchate.
Based on a 1974 supreme court decision, the Turkish state refused to recognize titles to Greek minority properties purchased or acquired by donation after 1936, when Turkey conducted a mandatory registration of minority properties. "Under the Turkish legal framework, the state would come knocking at our door and say that you had no right to possess this land you acquired in 1944, 1959 and so forth, because it was not registered in the list you submitted in 1936," Kalamaris told the Athens News.
New property law
In an effort to streamline its minority rights laws with those of the EU, which it hopes to join, Turkey enacted a law last August. "The new law passed in August said that we can acquire new property. The reform was a worthless gift. None of our communities or foundations want new property. All we want is to get back what was unjustly taken away from us," Kalamaris underlined.
The cumbersome requirements of the law also suggest that Turkey's reforms do not always achieve their goal. The law required cabinet approval for the purchase or sale of property by communities. The August law stated: "Community foundations, regardless of whether or not they have a charter or foundation, can acquire or dispose of real property with the permission of the council of ministers." A further directive issued by the directorate of foundations in October, reportedly on instructions from the office of then premier Bulent Ecevit, threw even more bureaucratic red tape in the way of community organizations seeking to acquire or sell property.
After the EU refused to open accession talks with Turkey last December, the law was revised in January, doing away with the need to obtain cabinet approval to buy or sell property belonging to minority foundations. But it is still necessary to obtain approval of both the local directorate of foundations and the headquarters in Ankara.
But the real issue for the Istanbul Greeks remains the return of confiscated property. Although the new law passed in January does not specifically establish a right to reclaim confiscated property, Kalamaris believes it provides sufficient grounds to legally challenge in the courts past judicial rulings by which valuable real estate was confiscated. Moreover, those properties acquired by the Greek minority after 1936 and not previously registered in the land registry can now be legally registered with proof of ownership like rental agreements or utility bills.
"The Greek Balouki Hospital suffered most from this situation. They have had 136 pieces of valuable real estate confiscated by the state," Kalamaris said.
Another key property is a huge real estate parcel that once housed an orphanage on the posh resort island of Prinkipos off Istanbul, and was owned by the patriarchate. This land was also expropriated by the state, which blocked an effort by the church to develop the prime property as a hotel unit. The patriarchate's case against the state is still under review in the Turkish Council of State.
But the problem is not exclusive to the Greeks, as the Armenian community has faced a similar predicament on a much smaller scale. Diram Bakar, a lawyer for the community, told the Athens News that he was successful in reversing a handful of expropriations through legal challenges in court.
Over several weeks until the February 8 deadline for registering all property, a small group of Istanbul Greeks worked for hours on end compiling the full record of title to hundreds of pieces of property owned by dozens of Greek community foundations. These were submitted to both the land registry and the directorate of foundations in compliance with the new law. The registered properties are the legacy of a once vibrant community of wealthy merchants and businessmen numbering over 150,000 just half a century ago.
No equality for Istanbul Greeks
Although they are Turkish citizens, the Greeks of Istanbul complain that they do not enjoy equality in the eyes of the law. Greek Orthodox foundations are placed under the category of "foreign foundations", even though the Greek minority is comprised of native-born Turkish citizens whose ancestors have lived in the country for centuries.
Article 37 of the Treaty of Lausanne, which still largely determines the rights of Istanbul's Greek minority, stipulates that no Turkish domestic law can limit the treaty rights of the Greek community, including that of self-administration. But the Turkish state frequently finds formal pretexts to dissolve the governing boards of Greek community foundations, opening the way for the judicial expropriation of the property of minority communities.
The majority of Greek-owned property is still in Greek hands - some $10 billion worth - but there are fears that the process of expropriation will soon target these properties as well.
Greek foreign ministry spokesman Panos Beglitis told the Athens News that the revised EU accession partnership for Turkey, due to be submitted at the end of March, will set forth a clear obligation for Ankara to respect the property rights of the Greek minority - including the right to reclaim properties arbitrarily expropriated by the state over the last three decades.
"The EU Commission's evaluation report last October refers to religious foundations and their rights. It stresses Turkey's shortcomings and requests a change in the legal framework to address that. We underlined this problem leading up to Copenhagen and will do so again for the revised accession partnership. This will certainly be a condition Turkey must fulfill," Beglitis said.