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Making amends

August 30, 2011

The Turkish government has agreed to return hundreds of confiscated properties to the country's non-Muslim minorities. The European Union has joined Christian and Jewish communities in praising Turkey's historic step.

A mosque and a church side by side
The Turkish state began seizing properties in 1936Image: Fotomontage/AP/DW

The Turkish government has pledged to return hundreds of properties confiscated from religious minorities over the last 75 years, a decision lauded by the European Union and Turkey's Christian and Jewish communities.

Former owners of any property or land sold on to a third party are also to be refunded the market value by the state treasury.

The decree was announced ahead of a fast-breaking dinner for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in Istanbul on Sunday. In attendance was Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as well as representatives of the Orthodox Christian and Jewish communities.

The decision to return the properties, which include churches, community centers, hospitals, schools, houses and cemeteries, was welcomed by members of Turkey's Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Jewish communities.

"This is a restoration, a reparation of an injustice," said Bartholomew I, the spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, during the holy dinner.

"This is a extremely great and positive step and certainly an event which the whole world will appreciate," added Pantelis Vingas Lakis, president of Turkey's largest Greek lobby group.

Appeasing the EU

The European Union has also welcomed the move, seen as a step forward in Turkey's candidacy bid for EU membership.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
Erdogan could face criticism from Turkish nationalistsImage: AP

A spokeswoman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle described the return of the property as a positive step, "leading the way for the implementation of religious freedom." Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a European Parliament deputy of Germany's Free Democratic Party, called it a "historic step."

The Turkish state began seizing properties from religious minorities in 1936, when all non-Muslim foundations in Turkey were forced to register their properties.

In the following decades the Turkish government took many of the buildings and land and sold some of it off. The finances of Christian and Jewish communities were deeply affected and the number of non-Muslim Turks dwindled as many opted to leave the country.

Making amends

On Sunday, Erdogan pledged his remorse for the widespread confiscation and vowed that the new regulation would address Turkey's past mistakes.

"We thus solve a problem that has damaged our reputation in the international arena for decades," he said."The times when a citizen of ours would be oppressed due to his religious, ethnic origin or different way of life are over. This is not about doing a favor; this is about rectifying an injustice."

The dispute over the return of Turkey's expropriated property has occupied the European Court of Human Rights for years, and the court has repeatedly ruled against the government in Ankara.

Erdogan may have earned the recognition and respect of the Christian and Jewish communities with the decision, but it's likely he will receive a very different reaction from Turkish nationalists. The response from the country's traditionally strong nationalist opposition party is also still unknown.

Author: Steffen Wurzel / ccp
Editor: Martin Kuebler