Middle East Times
Published November 10, 2006
The Turkish parliament passed a law on Thursday to improve the property rights of the country's tiny Christian and Jewish communities, a key European Union demand, and faced criticism that the bill falls short of expectations.
The legislation, which needs the president's approval to take effect, paves the way for mainly Greek, Armenian, and Jewish foundations to recover properties seized by the state since 1974 under a controversial court ruling.
Community representatives have slammed the bill for failing to provide a remedy for the return of or compensation for properties the state had since sold to third parties, warning that Turkey risks hefty compensation cases at the European Court of Human Rights.
They have also denounced a provision that limits the period for applications for the return of properties to 18 months.
In a report on Ankara's progress toward membership, the European Commission said Wednesday that "non-Muslim religious communities have no access to legal personality and continue to face restricted property rights," even though freedom of worship is "generally respected" in the country.
The bill, an overhaul of the Foundations Law, loosens the tight state control over all foundations and broadens their rights on property and administration.
In another move to address EU criticism, it allows foundations to operate abroad and receive foreign funds, but only on the condition that international activities are mentioned in their statutes, a restriction that, critics say, effectively excludes non-Muslim institutions.
The bill, on parliament's agenda since September, faced harsh objections by the main opposition, which accused the government of compromising Turkey's interests under EU pressure.
Non-Muslims in Turkey are mostly Greeks and Armenians, often viewed with suspicion because of deep mistrust toward Greece, a historical rival, and Armenia, which accuses Ottoman Turks of having committed genocide against its ancestors during World War I.
In September, legislators also broadened the rights of minority schools, but scrapped a proposal that would have allowed them to enrol foreign students, in a move to avoid laying ground for the reopening of a Greek Orthodox theology school, another EU demand.
The 1971 closure of the century-old seminary, on the island of Halki off Istanbul, deprived the Eastern Orthodox Church, seated in Istanbul since Byzantine times when the city was called Constantinople, of a facility to train clergy.
The issue of Christian minority rights is also likely to figure high on the agenda of Pope Benedict XVI when he visits Turkey in late November.
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