By Selcan Hacaoglu - The Associated Press
ANKARA - Turkey's parliament yesterday began debating a draft law which would return properties confiscated by the state from Christian and Jewish minority foundations as part of reforms to boost the predominantly Muslim country's bid for European Union membership.
European officials have made wide-reaching reforms to improve minority rights in Turkey, a prerequisite for the country's membership.
The draft law would allow foundations to reacquire confiscated properties, but it was not clear whether they would be allowed to reclaim property that has since been sold on to other people.
"We are trying to solve the problems of minority foundations in acquiring property," Deputy Premier Mehmet Ali Sahin said.
The amendments, however, fall short of minorities' expectations and do not make provisions for the return of some types of confiscated properties, such as cemeteries or properties owned by minority schools, which are not foundations.
The debate on the return of the minorities' properties comes a week before the EU is widely expected to announce in its report on Turkey's progress toward membership that Ankara has made no significant advances in either political reforms or in normalizing relations with EU member Cyprus to meet EU membership criteria.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Islamic-rooted government is insisting that EU member Greece take more steps toward granting its Muslim minority more rights before Turkey takes further steps.
Members of Turkey's small Armenian and Greek minorities have criticized the government's reluctance to grant them more rights.
Turkey's reluctance to concede to demands of non-Muslim minorities stems from a deep mistrust many here feel toward Greece, Turkey's historical regional rival.
"There are issues which make us feel sick," Omer Abusoglu, a lawmaker from the opposition Motherland Party, told parliament yesterday in reference to the law on minority foundations. "We have very serious concerns regarding the continuation of the Turkish Republic. Let's not give the opportunity to foreign powers, the enemies of Turkey, to harm the country."
Parliament recently ratified a motion giving more administrative rights to minority schools, but removed a key passage that would have allowed foreign students to attend these schools, in a move that carefully avoided the possible reopening of a Greek Orthodox theology school shut down 35 years ago.
Turkey has been resisting pressure from the EU to reopen the Halki Seminary on an island near Istanbul, which was closed to new students in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control.
The seminary trained generations of Greek Orthodox leaders, including the current Patriarch Vartholomaios, a divisive figure in Turkey, which does not recognize his international role and rejects his use of the title "ecumenical," or universal, arguing instead that the patriarch is merely the spiritual leader of Istanbul's dwindling Orthodox community.
The seminary remained open until 1985, when the last five students graduated.
The Orthodox school issue is likely to attract attention when Pope Benedict XVI meets with Vartholomaios in Istanbul during a visit to Turkey later this month.