Today's Zaman, Turkey
Jan 1 2012

Vingas: Turkey's non-Muslims, government getting closer

1 January 2012 / YONCA POYRAZ DO─?AN , ─░STANBUL


Laki Vingas, the first non-Muslim citizen of Turkey to be elected as a
representative of non-Muslim foundations in the Council of the General
Assembly of the VGM, has said that the government and the non-Muslim
community have been establishing closer relations after years of
mistrust and distance.

`Since we had a new law, we had a new chance. The first meeting of VGM
officials with non-Muslim community leaders in ─░stanbul in March 2009
has recently borne fruit,' Vingas said for Monday Talk. `What seemed
so unattainable has become attainable.'

He was referring to the new law on non-Muslim foundations that was
passed in Parliament in 2008 with some deficiencies because of
nationalistic reactions as those foundations would be able to reclaim
their seized properties.

In November 2006, Parliament passed a bill to return assets and
property previously seized from non-Muslim foundations by the state,
but it was vetoed by then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who claimed
the bill was a national security risk and returned the bill to
Parliament. That law was subject to much criticism because it violated
the fundamental rights and liberties of non-Muslim citizens, which are
guaranteed under the Turkish Constitution, the European Convention on
Human Rights and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.' Then, civil society
groups appealed to the government and Parliament not to pass the bill
in its current form and to listen to representatives of non-Muslim
foundations before coming up with a new draft.

`A few years ago, our foundations were regarded as `foreign' by some
in Turkey, but today the highest-level officials of the country come
together with non-Muslim community representatives,' he said.

In a more recent move, the government issued a decree to return
properties confiscated from religious minorities since 1936, and in
cases where property belonging to such organizations has been sold by
the state to third parties, the religious foundation will be paid the
market value of the property by the Ministry of Finance.

The decision was announced before an iftar (fast-breaking dinner) on
Aug. 28, attended by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─?an and
representatives of non-Muslim communities in ─░stanbul, and non-Muslim
groups in Turkey have highly praised the government's move.

The law on foundations in 1936 aimed to control non-Muslim foundations
by placing them under the guardianship of the VGM. Since then
government relations with non-Muslims have become even more troubled
than before. The laws on foundations have been altered a few times,
with new amendments following each other; new laws granting some
rights, which were then rescinded by other regulations.

Turkey's population of nearly 75 million, mostly Muslim, includes
about 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 Jews, 15,000
Assyrians and about 3,500 Greek Orthodox Christians. While Armenian
groups have 52 and Jewish groups have 17 foundations, Greeks have 75.
Some of the properties seized from those foundations include
hospitals, schools and cemeteries.

Answering our questions, Vingas said that the government's relations
with non-Muslims are changing for the better.

If we go back three years ago, when you were first elected to the post
to represent non-Muslim foundations, what would you tell us about it?

Let me tell you about how I feel as a person living in this country.
First of all, I've always felt like a full-fledged citizen in this
country -- even at times when I faced troubles that made me think that
I should not feel that way. In my opinion, I had only one way to go:
to live as a full-fledged citizen while I protected my identity
without being ashamed of it. I knew that I was not a person who could
act in a different way. When I speak like this, some people might say:
`Laki never had to endure any hardships. How would he know the
difficulties and pains that the non-Muslim community has had to suffer
from?' But even though I had my own difficult stories, I still felt
like I am either a full-fledged citizen or not; I would not change my
name or act as if I am not from a certain, different background than
the majority. Before I was first elected for the post three years ago,
I was dealing with the cultural events of the Greek community, and in
the process I've been trying to establish bridges between and among
different cultures. So recently, when there was an opportunity for
non-Muslims to be representatives of their community in the VGM, I
asked in the community what they were planning to do.

If we can pause there for a moment, let's talk about when exactly this
right was provided for non-MuslimsŽ

It was provided when the Law on Foundations was changed in 2008, and
took effect in 2009. But while the bill concerning non-Muslim
foundations was being discussed in Parliament in 2008, there were
objections and attacks against the government going so far as to claim
that it was betraying and selling out the country! The law passed with
some deficiencies. During the implementation phase for the return of
properties during the last three years, we've seen deficiencies that
have been improved by recent decrees. At the time, in 2009, I was
asking our Greek community what plans they had as we have rights for
representation in the VGM. I proposed a couple of candidates from our
community, but since they couldn't leave their positions to go to
Ankara twice a month they couldn't accept.

And people started to look at me. With the support of our Greek,
Armenian and Jewish foundations, I was elected and completed my
three-year term.

And you were the first non-Muslim to be in that representative
position in the VGMŽ

Yes.

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`It was a difficult encounter for non-Muslims and government'
How were you received in Ankara?

It was an unusual coming together as both sides have had reservations
toward each other, but we had to take risks. Non-Muslim cultures
belong to this land, and they enrich this land. We are realities in
this country. Approaching each other has not been very easy as it
requires patience, analysis and compromise. If you are not sincere, if
you are not at peace with yourself, if you are not there to find
solutions to problems and if you don't believe that you can claim your
future in your native land, you cannot be successful. My duty was to
further develop relations between state authorities and non-Muslim
foundations as well as try to develop relations among non-Muslim
communities. Of course this needed to be done with actions to
compensate for past injustices -- to give back what had been taken
unjustly before. Another duty of mine has been making the non-Muslim
communities more participatory as they have started to feel more
relaxed and at ease. Seeing and acting on that reality is possible
through laws; it is not enough to be aware of it in one's conscious
and religion. It is certain that the non-Muslim communities do not
have much political power since they are few in number. They are not
an economic power anymore, either. They don't have the power to lead
socially. However, Turkey has a major responsibility to keep their
legacy and culture alive since it could enrich and positively
contribute the young generations of Turkey. Turkey has a
responsibility not only to preserve them but also to provide
opportunities for them to flourish.

Do you think that the great distance between the VGM and the
non-Muslim communities has been narrowed in recent years?

There was a huge distance between them. First, that distance should be
reduced before doing anything else. Giving presents or even rights to
non-Muslims communities without establishing a trusting environment
would do no good; and for trust to develop there must be a dialogue.
Since we had a new law, we had a new chance. We are finally seeing the
results of the 2009 meeting of VGM officials with non-Muslim community
leaders. There were about 200 people during that meeting, which seemed
so impossible before it happened. Until that time, relations between
the VGM and the non-Muslim community has been through the assistance
of certain people. Only those people were able to establish relations
with VGM officials. But we supported a more open relationship, more
open dialogue in which each citizen would be able approach his or her
representative. After that meeting, we had more gatherings together.
And what seemed so unattainable has become attainable. Here, I have to
underline the importance of the government's positive approach to the
issue. A few years ago, our foundations were regarded as `foreign' by
some in Turkey, but today the highest-level officials of the country
come together with non-Muslim community representatives.

How do you think the opposition has changed in that regard?

We haven't seen any political resistance from the opposition in the
last three years. There are some close relations at the local level --
the B├╝y├╝kada, Bak─▒rk├Ây and Sar─▒yer municipalities work with the
non-Muslims communities, and non-Muslims can assume active roles in
these municipalities.

VGM does not have very much visibility in society, does it?

The VGM is a closed government institution, and its services are not
well known. It has recently founded two universities, Fatih Sultan
Mehmet University and Bezmiâlem University. There are also major
valuable restorations that the VGM has undertaken, among them churches
and synagogues.

You have a major undertaking in your second term at the VGM as there
will be a process to return a number of properties to non-Muslims.

The maximum number of applications that we expect is 350. They will be
reviewed, and then there will be a decision made about how many of
those will be actually returned. It's been four months since the
governmental decree was announced, but there have not been many
applications so far.

Isn't it a problem that the VGM still has the final say over
registering the title deeds of the properties that will be returned to
their owners?

This is a political decision. The reasons that led to the founding of
the VGM in 1924 might have changed today, and the institution might
need reforms in light of today's developments. And that reform might
be possible if there is the political will.

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`Non-Muslims demand equal rights'
There are still some concerns about some of the properties because
they do not fall under the category of properties to be returned. One
such property concerns the Armenian community; the Tuzla Armenian
Children's Camp was built by Hrant Dink and it was bought by the
Gedikpa┼?a Armenian Foundation. But subsequent to a later Supreme Court
of Appeals ruling, acquisitions made after the infamous 1936
declaration have no legal validity, and therefore had to be returned
to their former owners. As a result, the Tuzla camp was returned to
its first owner.

I agree with the community's rightful needs. We also have to realize
that property returns have been possible since 2003 with missing parts
being completed in each next step. It is important to see how the
implementation of the laws will be. Let's first take advantage of new
developments provided by the law. It is of historic importance that we
will compensate the foundations for some of their losses. I have no
doubt that all those new and recent laws are passed with utmost
sincerity. And nobody says that rights cannot be sought further. It
takes time. Yes, we are tired; we are losing our patience. Look what
is happening to our schools; they are being closed down one by one.
Non-Muslim schools' representatives recently had a meeting with the
minister of education [├-mer Din├žer]. It was a very important meeting.
It wouldn't really matter if you gave properties back to uneducated,
ignorant, prejudiced and insecure people. But if our rights to
education are granted without political influence, then we will be
strengthened. Without education, buildings do not matter. I hope
non-Muslim foundations will be strengthened after receiving some of
their properties back. After that, they can participate to a greater
degree in society. We have been longing to see non-Muslims as natural
citizens of Turkey.

Would you elaborate on this concept of natural citizenship?

Non-Muslims citizens of this country should not be given anything just
because this is what the European Union wants or because the world is
watching Turkey with regard to this issue. The purpose is to make
non-Muslims feel at ease. They should not be defined within the limits
of how much property they had or that they have now; they should not
be defined by looking at their past. They are not `foreigners.' They
don't have a `secret agenda.' They have a culture, and they can
contribute to progress in Turkey just like any other Turkish citizen.
They can share sorrows and joys of this country just like any other
Turkish citizen. They should be accepted and treated as equal
citizens. We do not want to be on Turkey's political agenda anymore.
We do not have to be in a defensive position, proving all the time our
devotion to the country.

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Greek seminary to be opened when religious freedom granted
Why is the Halki Seminary on Heybeliada still closed?

The Halki Seminary has been closed for years as a result of political
speculation. It has been the Patriarchate that has been paying dearly
for it. Currently, Turkey is in the process of preparing a new
constitution. It's been a good process since we are all debating what
should and shouldn't be in that new constitution. This is quite
different than the process of the 1980s when a military-designed
constitution was imposed on people. The new constitution is supposed
to grant equal citizenship for all people in Turkey; it is supposed to
provide religious freedom, freedom of expression and the right to
assembly. It is supposed to prohibit hate speech and discrimination.
If those are granted in the new constitution, the seminary will
automatically be opened because opening the seminary falls under the
freedom of religion issue. When there is freedom of religion, then
adherents of a religion should be able to educate their religious
people.

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PROFILE
Laki Vingas

Elected to the Council of the General Assembly of the VGM -- attached
to the Prime Minister's Office in Ankara -- as the Representative of
Non-Muslim Foundations at the end of 2008, he will serve his second
term in the position following elections on Dec. 25. A Turkish citizen
of Greek descent, living in Yenik├Ây, ─░stanbul, Vingas is a
businessman. He actually studied marine engineering. He is the elected
representative of 164 non-Muslim foundations in the council of the
VGM.

In his words:

`I never practiced my engineering profession. My father died when I
graduated from high school. We did not have connections in society,
which was typical for a non-Muslim family at the time. We were living
in our own, isolated world. I had applied, through an intermediary, to
some companies to find a job. But I found that companies had some
non-Muslim employees and did not want to hire more non-Muslims. I gave
up looking for a job in engineering thinking that the situation was
out of my hands, and I was not going to be able to find a job in that
field. I graduated from university in 1983. These were tough years,
really tough [following the Sept. 12, 1980, military coup]. Every day,
we would enter the university after identification checks; there were
military policemen everywhere. Sometimes we were not even allowed to
use bathrooms. Once I was sitting next to a student who asked me if I
was Greek. I said, yes, but I was uneasy; we were already dealing with
the issues of being leftist and rightist at the time and now this! He
sensed my anxiety, then smiled and said, `Don't worry, I am an
Armenian.' Unfortunately, we grew up with such anxieties.'