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The Greek Minority and its foundations in Istanbul, Gokceada (Imvros) and Bozcaada (Tenedos)
Property rights of Greek people in Turkey and Greek Orthodox pious foundations real estate (vakif)
The immediate aftermath of “Septemvriana” (1955) and of the withdrawal of Turkey from the 1930 Greek-Turkish Ankara Convention (1964) was the expropriation of hundreds of private properties of both ethnic (minority) Greeks and Greek citizens living in Turkey. The adverse effects of this practice survive until today; the full enjoyment of the property rights of Greek citizens, descendants of the members of the Greek minority who fled Istanbul and the Gökçeada (Imvros) and Bozcaada (Tenedos) islands is such an issue. To this very issue, Turkey denies de facto Greek citizens the right to inherit property in Turkey. Due to the in re decisions of the ECtHR in Strasbourg, following individual applications filed against Turkey and thanks to its course towards EU accession, Turkey has recently recognized the right of Greek citizens to inherit property in the country, but:
1. ignores or interprets at will the amended legislation on property acquisition, whereas it does not confer any real estate property rights to ethnic Greeks;
Therefore, the Turkish administration, by means of arbitrary and deliberate actions and/or omissions has been and still is expropriating the real estate of the Greek minority. In contrast, the freedom Turkish citizens enjoy in Greece in managing their property bears evidence of the deliberate acts of the Turkish administration to financially suffocate the Greek minority and ultimately drive them to emigration.
From the 1960s until recently, unlawful and arbitrary administrative acts of the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM) designated a significant number of Greek community foundations as “State-expropriated” (mazbut) and, by taking possession thereof, took over the management of foundations and their proper estates. What is more, the Turkish State has not recognized the property acquisition by non-Muslim foundations –by means of either donation or purchase–after 1936. This practice of expropriation had been taking place by means of administrative acts until 1974, when a ruling by the Supreme Court of Turkey (Yargitay) issued a relevant writ of certiorari.
With particular regard to property acquired after 1936, the European Court of Human Rights reached a decision in favour of the Greek Minority Lyceum in Fener (“Megali tou Genous Sxoli/Fener Rum Erkek Lisesi Vakfı”) and ruled Turkey to pay damages for the school’s foundation real estate expropriated by the Turkish State.
Since 2008, Turkey has been attempting to align its legislation to the acquis communautaire as an EU-candidate country, initially introducing amendments to the old 1936 Law on Foundations. These amendments –with the exception of the provision for elections for Greek Orthodox foundations management committee membership– did not resolve the tangible and serious problems that foundations have been facing with the management of their property. These amendments were mere rectifications of existing blatant irregularities of the past. For instance, the competent Turkish authorities registered, albeit pro forma, in the land registry the names of the owner-foundations of a small number of properties which were not mentioned in the registry’s relevant column before the amendments.
The 2008 Foundations Law was perceived as a notable reform towards the regulation of the open pious foundations questions. In effect, though, the law was poorly enacted and omissions from the part of the VGM were not spared. Greece and its EU-partners, nevertheless, stressed the deficiencies and the need for additional legal or administrative interventions for the resolution of those issues that were not anticipated.
A 2011 amendment to the Law on Foundations provided for extended return of property or for restitution in the case of privately violated foundation property. This development was a first step towards the restitutio of the injustices of the past. This provision notwithstanding, mazbut (State-expropriated) foundations did not qualify for return or restitution. However, following the implementation of the new vakif law, the percentage of the expropriated property of Greek Orthodox pious foundations does not exceed 23% of the cases that were eligible for restitution; 70% of the cases were dismissed as inadmissible.
These limitations to the full enjoyment of property rights of the minorities within Turkey were noted in the 2018 Communication on EU Enlargement Policy,Turkey Report of the European Commission on the country, where it is mentioned that many claims are still pending either before the Turkish courts or before the European Court of Human Rights (1) while, at the same time, in its 2016 Progress Report the EC calls on Turkey to proceed with dialogue with the Minorities in view of providing for viable solutions to the pending questions. Furthermore, due to the unsatisfactory results from the application of the vakif law, the European Commission calls the adoption of a new broadened legal framework(2). The same applies to the question of the promulgation of the electoral regulation for pious foundations management committee membership, which is also noted in the abovementioned Progress Report. The abovementioned regulation has been arbitrarily repealed in 2013, which makes impossible the holding of elections since then. A failure to promulgate a new regulation equals to a violation of the Turkish citizens’ right to free elections, irrespective of their religion. Despite continuous proclamations of the Turkish Government concerning its intention to regulate the issue – for example, on October 2016, the recent meeting of the Turkish Vice President Veysi Kaynak with representatives of the Greek, Armenian and Jewish community -, they remain a dead letter.
(1) European Commission 2018 Communication on EU enlargment Policy Turkey Report, Section 2, Chapter 23, page 38
(2) European Commission 2016 Progress Report on Turkey, Section 4, Chapter 23, page 74