Erdogan vows equality for all non-Muslims in Turkish law

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    Erdogan vows equality for all non-Muslims in Turkish law


    Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, accompanied by his family and members of the Cabinet, attended a fast-breaking dinner hosted by representatives of non-Muslim communities on Sunday.

    Following a breakthrough government decree, which will see all confiscated immovable property belonging to minority foundations returned, the prime minister gathered with Turkey’s non-Muslim society at a fast-breaking dinner (iftar) right before the end of Ramadan 2011.
    Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who attended the iftar dinner hosted by representatives of non-Muslim communities with his family on Sunday, addressed around 160 different trusts and foundations with a speech that emphasized the importance of the recent decree to empower non-Muslims in Turkey, while hailing the end of a chapter in the country’s history that has been much criticized for rights abuse and legal dysfunctions that victimize minorities.
    Both the government’s move concerning the properties and Erdoğan’s gathering with the representatives of non-Muslim society have been swiftly welcomed by the European Union.
    Speaking at the İstanbul Archeology Museum, where the iftar dinner was held, Erdoğan said, “There have been times when people in our country were put under pressure for their beliefs, ethnic background, for the way they dress and their different lifestyles, but those days are over,” declaring that “nobody in this country is anymore privileged than anyone else in the eyes of the Constitution or other laws.”
    “For us, basic rights and freedoms can never be regarded or cast as a favor or a donation; it is our duty to solve the problems of every single citizen of this country as if it were our own issue,” said the prime minister with words that underscored the vital change in Turkey, which back in the early days of the republic expropriated properties of minorities and failed to return them or compensate for this.
    “This is İstanbul, where the adhan [call to prayer] and church bells sound together, where mosques, churches and synagogues have stood side by side on the same street for centuries,” Erdoğan uttered cherishing the vast diversity of the people that have peacefully coexisted in İstanbul, suggesting that the iftar event had symbolic significance for members of different faiths who had come together to share the same meal.
    Signaling that the government has faced provocation aimed at disrupting the belated return of rights, Erdoğan reinstated that his government would not be “standing beside others’ faults and that those people may never dare repeat the same mistakes again.”
    As the prime minister acknowledged the injustices suffered by followers of other faiths due to their differences, sometimes amounting to their being prevented from practicing their beliefs, he vowed that “those days are no more” following the recent decree published in the Official Gazette on Saturday that marks a landmark in minority rights in Turkey.
    According to the decree, Turkey is to return all immovable property of non-Muslim foundations and compensate for others that have come under the ownership of third parties since they were confiscated from their rightful owners.
    First attempts to return property to minority groups surfaced in 1936 when the newly founded country ordered through the 1936 Law on Foundations to declare a list of immovables and other property, but founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s death in 1938 rendered the lists forgotten. The recent decree, however, foresees the return of expropriated properties that were declared back in 1936, including orphanages, schools, cemeteries, fountains and other property.
    The belated decision was also welcomed by prominent leaders of the non-Muslim communities of Turkey, who have faith that the conflict between “the sensitivity stemming from their backgrounds and their duties as citizens” may finally be over.
    “This is the restoration of an injustice. Undesirable incidents happened in the past, but they are being fixed,” suggested Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Fener Greek Orthodox Church in İstanbul at the iftar dinner. “We are sure we will see even better than this,” added the religious leader of the Greek Orthodox community, around 2,500 of whom currently reside in Turkey.
    During the event, Erdoğan also called on the non-Muslim community to offer their contribution to the new constitution the government aspires to creating in its current term to close an era of injustices that have been justified many times by the loopholes and measures that are open to interpretation in the 1982 Constitution, a product of the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup that toppled an elected government and still haunts the country with its outdated, over regulatory content.
    The recent decree attempting to resolve property issues between the Turkish state and minority groups is considered a significant move in Turkey’s bid to join the EU, since the bloc held the illegal expropriations as a major obstacle in the country’s path towards full membership. In Turkey, where close to 100,000 non-Muslim minorities live in a population of 74 million with an overwhelming Muslim majority, religious minorities have often complained about discrimination.
    Turkey, in many instances in the past, has been ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of euros to minority foundations on decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights, as the expropriation of property rights was carried out in violation of both the Treaty of Lausanne and property rights.
    Minority foundations will have 12 months to apply to Turkish authorities to reclaim their property.
    EU welcomes return of properties

    The European Commission quickly welcomed the decree and Erdoğan’s meeting with representatives of Turkey’s non-Muslim society.
    “The Commission welcomes Turkey’s new legislation for the return of properties to religious foundations published in the Official Gazette on Aug. 27; the Commission also welcomes the meeting of Prime Minister Erdoğan with the heads of non-Muslim religious communities at an iftar dinner on Aug. 28. All this is positive and conducive to the respect of freedom of religion in practice,” a statement released by EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle said on Monday.
    “The Commission will monitor closely the implementation of the new legislation, in contact with both the Turkish authorities and the non-Muslim religious communities,” the statement also said.

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