The following speeches and addresses were delivered from speakers in the 1st Archon International Conference on Religious Freedom which was held in the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium in November 2010.

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Speech of Lakis Vingas

Council Member, General Directorate Of Foundations
Representative Of The Non Muslim Foundations

The Specific Religious Freedom Issues and Concerns of the Greek Orthodox Community

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear participants,

I am honored and pleased to join you here, today, in the seat of the European Union, to discuss issues of religious freedom and some general concerns expressed by religious minorities in Turkey.

I was elected in December 2008 as the member of the Council of the General Directorate of Foundations representing all non-Muslim foundations, under the provisions of the new Law on Foundations. This law marks the first time that such a provision was ever introduced throughout the long history of relations between the religious minorities and the state.

Notably, it is the first time that a non-Muslim Turkish citizen has participated in the bureaucratic establishment and has been given the right to vote, under the purview of the General Directorate of Foundations [GDF]. This change was the direct result of the fact that Turkey was accepted as a candidate member of the European Union, and thereby initiated a series of reforms in an effort to harmonize its legislation with the EU legislation.

Law no. 5737 gives the following rights to non-Muslim foundations: to acquire new property, to dispose of existing properties, to replace existing properties with more useful ones under certain conditions; to allocate to another foundation of the same community real property that is not being used for charitable purposes or to convert this property into income yielding property and other lawful purposes.

The fifteen-member Council is the highest decision-making body of the General Directorate of Foundations (GDF). The Council aims to ensure, for the first time in history, the democratic participation of foundations in decisions that concern them. The Council's duties include the following:

a) Decisions for public benefit on expropriations and dispositions of real estate and charitable real property;

b) Oversight of the budgets of the Directorate General and Operational Directorates

c) Draft regulations and by-laws concerning the Directorate General and foundations;

The most encouraging provision of the law is the return of legal title to hundreds of valuable parcels of real property which belong to the foundations, and the corresponding right to register them under the name of the relevant foundation. The GDF reports that 107 minority foundations have submitted almost 1,560 applications for property registration. To date, 131 positive decisions have been issued, while another 150 applications were granted without requiring the decision of the Foundations Council. For a further 943 applications, the Council extended the deadline to 16 July 2010 in order to review all the files completed. Negative decisions were issued for another 347 applications. This process is ongoing and more requests are expected to receive a positive answer.

Despite these groundbreaking developments, there are still many issues of great importance to the minority communities. For example, the law fails to address the issue of compensation, a significant factor for a number of properties that have been re-sold to a third party after government expropriation. The law contains no provisions respecting the legal status of certain properties which were not formally registered to any particular foundation. These significant properties include the cemeteries of non-Muslim minorities, ownership of which has been transferred to the surrounding municipalities. There is also the minorities' request to be permitted to use inactive school buildings for other purposes that would be for the benefit and advantage of the communities.

Another shortcoming of Law no. 5737 is its failure to provide for the creation of new minority foundations, as is the case in the Jewish community in Smyrna and the recent immigrant communities of Syrian Catholics and the Syrian Jacobites.

Another significant flaw of this law is its failure to allow existing minority foundations to adapt to the current local or cultural needs of their own community. Many of the existing Greek foundations would gladly consolidate into a smaller number, since the community is much smaller, as is also needed a central coordinating body which will be active for each community independently but no such mechanism currently exists. The law should allow every foundation to have its own internal regulation, so the foundation could adapt to today's needs via its internal regulation..

The total number of today's minority foundations is 163, including Armenian, Jewish, Syriac Christian, Chaldean, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian foundations.

Finally, the Law no. 5737 does not provide for the return of "seized" non-Muslim minority foundations. It is well established that, in an earlier ddifficult period, the General Directorate of Foundations had declared "seized" (mazbut) 24 Greek-Orthodox and 24 Jewish foundations under the pretext that "they no longer have a charitable or practical use". In other words, the foundations in question have kept their legal personality, but their administration has been "seized" by the state. In actual point of fact, the 48 "seized" foundations are, in the vast majority of cases, Churches or Synagogues rather than charitable institutions, and are therefore by definition are exclusively dedicated to worship.  Given the foregoing, our communities have a legitimate reason to wonder when those properties are going to be returned and, more importantly, why we have been arbitrarily deprived of their administration.

Another major gap in the current Turkish legal framework is the fact that the religious institutions of our communities are not recognized by Turkish law. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Armenian Patriarchate, the Catholic Church, the Jewish Rabbinate and others – all with a long history in our country, do not have legal personality.  This means that they cannot acquire, sell or rent property, have a tax identification number and have their own educational facilities to educate their members.

Yet, I would be remiss if I did not mention the positive steps that have been taken:

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew celebrated on 15 August, after almost nine decades, the Divine Liturgy of the Dormition of [the Virgin] Theotokos at the Soumela monastery in the Black Sea province of Trabzon.

The Turkish government granted Turkish citizenship to fourteen members of the Greek Orthodox hierarchs. This facilitates the work of the Patriarchate and the Holy Synod.

As regards the Orphanage/ Büyükada Case before the Court of Strasbourg, it has to be stressed that the Büyükada civil court of first instance ruled in favour of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, reflecting the ECtHR's judgement and the position of the Foundations Assembly. The Patriarchate is again the owner of the said property.

In 2009, non-Muslim communities received financial support from abroad in the amount of 3 million dollars.

On 19 September, the first religious service was held at the Armenian Holy Cross Church on the Akhdamar island in lake Van since 1915.

The Jewish Synagogue in Edirne is being restored with GDF's permission and financial support, as well as some Orthodox Churches in Gökçeada.

The coordination of the state institutions and ministries which effected this work has been achieved by remarkable and positive contributions from the ministry led by State Minister and Chief Negotiator for Turkey with the EU, Mr Egemen Bagış, to whom I wish at this moment to express our profound appreciation and gratitude.

The most important development, in my view, is the gradual establishment of a new culture of equality before the law.  As a GDF member, I see examples on a daily basis that this culture has permeated Turkish society. As a result of this culture of cooperation, in May 2010, the Prime Minister has instructed all relevant authorities to pay due attention to the problems of non-Muslim Turkish citizens and to behave with equanimity and justice. The issues covered include the protection and maintenance of non-Muslim cemeteries, a control that has been transferred to municipalities; the implementation of court decisions in favour of non-Muslim community foundations at title-deed registry offices, and the launch of immediate legal proceedings against publications inciting hatred and animosity towards non-Muslim communities.

In this context, I am positive that the authorities will establish law on foundations, which will address the shortcomings outlined above. The proposals of the non-Muslim communities have already been drafted and sent to the relevant authorities.  I am optimistic that in this new spirit of cooperation between the minority and the majority, this new law will come as the result of a fruitful cooperation with communities.

To sum up, the treatment of Turkey's religious minorities constitutes one of the key challenges to Turkey's EU aspirations. After many decades, we minority groups now have a dialogue with the majority population using our own voice. This empowerment has been the direct affect of Turkey's approach closer to the EU and it's determination to democratize the state institutions. It is important to carry on this direct dialogue and put forward even more rigorously our own demands. We are determined to keep expressing ourselves in our own voice because democracy can only exist when all voices are heard.