Turkey’s Council of Foundations – part of Turkey’s Directorate General for Foundations (VGM) agreed on Jan. 11 to return 190 hectares, some 470 acres, of forest land to the Greek Orthodox Halki (Heybeliada) Seminary in İstanbul.
According to the decision, the land will be given to the seminary’s owner, the Aya Triada Monastery Foundation. This is the biggest property return to a minority group in the history of Turkey, according to Today’s Zaman.
Established in 1844 on the island of Heybeliada, Halki Seminary was closed in 1971 under a law that placed religious and military training under state control. It was the only school where Turkey’s Greek minority educated its clergy. The theological school once trained generations of Greek Orthodox leaders, including the current Patriarch Bartholomew, who is one of its 900 graduates.
This will be the largest return of property in terms of size to a non-Muslim community since the Turkish government adopted a decree in August 2011 to return all confiscated immovable property belonging to minority foundations in Turkey.
According to the decree, minority foundations are able to reclaim real property they had declared back in 1936. All real property, cemeteries and fountains will be returned to their rightful owners. Immovable property currently belonging to third parties will also be paid for.
Minority foundations, seeking the return of property seized by the Turkish state in the first decade of the Turkish Republic, are finding that taking back what belongs to them is not going to be easy, despite a 2011 law passed to ensure confiscated property be returned to its rightful owners.
Zaman noted that in August of last year, the Justice and Development Party (AKP Party) government adopted legislation to return all confiscated immovable property belonging to minority foundations in Turkey, a long-overdue step towards expanding the rights of minorities in the country. The decree allows foundations to reclaim real property declared back in 1936.
All real property, cemeteries and fountains are to be returned to their rightful holders as per the decree. Immoveable property currently belonging to third persons will be paid for. The process has been ongoing for some time, as foundations were given 12 months to apply to authorities.
Laki Vingas, the first non-Muslim citizen of Turkey to be elected as a representative of non-Muslim foundations in the Council of the General Assembly of the VGM, said he was satisfied with the decision. “This is the restoration of a right,” he told Today’s Zaman. Vingas noted that there have been many other property returns that were higher in value but the return of the forestland has symbolic importance because the Halki seminary is involved.
Turkey’s population of nearly 75 million, mostly Muslim, includes about 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 Jews, 15,000 Arameans (Syriacs) and about 3,500 Greek Orthodox Christians. While Armenian groups have 52 and Jewish groups have 17 foundations, Greeks have 75. Some of the properties seized from those foundations include hospitals, schools and cemeteries.