11:32 05.09.11

Non-Muslim groups in Turkey have praised highly the government's recent
move to return properties confiscated from religious minorities since
1936, Today's Zaman reported.

They are now looking forward to the announcement of regulations as
to how the law will be implemented.

According to a decree published in the Official Gazette last weekend,
property seized from Christian and Jewish religious foundations
will be returned to them, 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 Erdogan and
representatives of non-Muslim communities in Istanbul. Turkey's
non-Muslim citizens applaud the move and say the step was expected,
since the government has been working on the issue for some time.

"This is a very positive move," said Rober Koptash,
editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos. "However,
we have to see how the law will be implemented."

Koptash was concerned about how the new regulations will affect
some properties belonging to non-Muslims. One of those properties is
the Tuzla Armenian Children's Camp, which was built by Hrant Dink,
the former editor-in-chief of Agos, murdered in 2007. The camp is
not among the properties to be returned, as indicated by officials,
because under the new regulations the government will not return
or reimburse for properties no longer directly held by the state,
or from the sale of which the state received no income. The Tuzla
camp was bought by the Gedikpasha Armenian Foundation in 1962, but
subsequent to a Supreme Court of Appeals ruling in 1974, acquisitions
made after the 1936 declaration had 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," he said, adding that in
that case the state did not receive any money from the sale but the
transfer was still "unjust," because the ruling was based on
ethnic "discrimination."

Koptash also pointed out the need for a more comprehensive solution.

"We need arrangements to deal with expropriated property, since
those actions may not have been based on fair evaluations in many
cases." Koptash was referring to a series of discriminatory
practices of the republic targeting non-Muslims. A new law on
foundations in 1936, aimed at controlling Muslim and non-Muslim
foundations, placed them under the guardianship of the Directorate
General for Foundations (VGM), in violation of the Lausanne Treaty
between Turkey and Western powers in 1923, which guaranteed non-Muslim
communities the right "to retain special education and property
rights." This law also demanded that the foundations, which receive
most of their income from rents, declare their sources of income and
how it was spent: These are the "1936 Declarations."

Under the high court's 1974 ruling - described as "massacring the
law" by many human rights lawyers - non-Muslim foundations lost
thousands of properties. The laws on foundations have been altered a
couple of times, with new amendments following each other; new laws
granted some rights, which were then rescinded by other regulations.