Turkey’s parliament approved on Wednesday a law aimed at boosting the property rights of non-Muslim minorities, a reform long sought by the European Union that Ankara hopes to join.
Turkish authorities have expropriated millions of dollars worth of property belonging to Christians or their churches, especially the Greek Orthodox, over the decades. The new law would allow foundations to re-acquire some confiscated properties but not those sold on to third parties, something that is unlikely to satisfy Turkey’s tiny Christian communities — Greek, Armenian and Syriac.
Olli Rehn, EU commissioner responsible for enlargement of the 27-nation bloc and negotiations with Turkey, called adoption of the law “a welcome step forward”. But implementation would be “the test of Turkey’s progress in ensuring rights and freedoms”. The EU has urged Turkey to create a comprehensive legal framework that allows all religious groups unrestricted freedom to operate in the overwhelmingly Muslim but secular country.
Rehn said the official text still needed to be studied although drafts indicated the law addressed a number of issues crucial for the functioning of religious foundations. “This is an important issue for Turkey, and one that all EU institutions have regularly highlighted as important to ensure fundamental rights and freedoms for all Turkish citizens,” he said in a statement.
The Turkish parliament, where the Islamist-rooted AK Party has a big majority, approved the bill by 242 votes to 72. The nationalist opposition MHP criticised the bill as a threat to national interests. Turkey’s former president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, vetoed the religious foundations bill in November 2006 because he feared it could erode Turkey’s separation of state and religion.His successor, Abdullah Gul, a former AK Party foreign minister and an advocate of EU reforms, is expected to sign the new bill into law in the near future.
Brussels has also raised concerns over restrictions on the training of Christian clergy in Turkey, a problem not tackled in the current foundations law.
Turkey has vowed to revive its stalled EU reform process this year but has postponed plans to overhaul a law long criticised in Brussels as an obstacle to freedom of expression.
The EU has suspended negotiations with Ankara in eight policy areas because of Turkey’s failure to open its ports and airports to traffic from EU member Cyprus. Turkey has no diplomatic relations with the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot government, backing instead breakaway Turkish Cypriots in the north of the island.