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      It's time for Europe to judge Turkey

It's time for Europe to judge Turkey   6/09/2005

EDITORIAL

It's time for Europe to judge Turkey

The term "ethnic cleansing" may be a recent expression, but the practice is an old one, and the Turks have proven to be masters of that practice, during the Ottoman period, as well as during the rules of Young Turks and Kemalists.

Whatever the Ottoman Sultans had begun – especially Sultan Abdul Hamid, who perpetrated the massacres of 1895/96 – the Young Turks continued by exterminating another 1.5 million Armenians, and Kemal Ataturk completed the task by expelling the remnants of Armenians from Cilicia and burning the city of Smyrna (1922), to drive the Greek community out to the sea.

Ever since, Turkey has been enjoying ethnic homogeneity, if we don't factor in sporadic Kurdish uprisings, despite their common Moslem faith.

However, the successive Turkish governments have never ceased to harass, intimidate and dispossess decimated ethnic minorities, namely, Armenians, Greeks and Jews.

In violation of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, whereby the Turkish government committed itself to respect minority rights, the ethnic groups have been continually oppressed through the Wealth Tax of the 1940s, through the organized riots of September 6 (1955), and through the confiscation of schools, churches, and income properties of the ethnic minorities, which were supposedly protected by the Treaty of Lausanne.

Except for being intimidated and ridiculed at the Turkish courts, the emasculated minorities never dared to appeal to the international community for help. On the contrary, they were coerced "to confess" that they enjoyed equal rights under the law, like other citizens, when questioned by the international human rights groups.

However, the landscape changed dramatically in recent years, when Greek Cypriots successfully sued the Turkish government in the European courts for loss of property as a consequence of Turkish army aggression against the island in 1974 and as a consequence of Turkey's application to the European Union, to become a full member. The latter case stipulated that Turkey had to adopt European standards of law and abandon its medieval practices.

In recent years Turkey was forced to abolish the death penalty and introduce a series of reforms in its constitution, guaranteeing human rights, respect for minority cultures and eliminating torture in its penal system.

However, those changes have proven that there is still a gaping distance between the laws on paper and actual practice; indeed, contrary to UN resolutions and worldwide condemnations, Turkey continues to occupy 38% of Cypriot territory, it continues to blockade Armenia and bullies Kurds in Iraq.

Internally the confiscation of minority properties continues with an inexorable gusto.

In response to continued oppression of minorities the Greek Patriarch has finally ventured to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Armenian Patriarch in Istamboul – who thus far has been fond of practicing ostrich policy – has finally decided to follow suit and take the community's case to the same court.

The European Court of Human Rights was set up in Strasbourg by the Council of Europe Member States in 1959 to deal with alleged violations of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

On September 20, 2005 the seven-judge court will hear the cases of Greek and Armenian communities, whose properties have been confiscated by the Turkish government. Both applicants are foundations (wakif) under Turkish law that was established during the Ottoman period. The Wakif of the Greek Boys' Lyceum in Fener was established to provide secondary education to Greek students. The Sourp Pirgic (Holy Savior) Armenian Hospital Foundation of Yedikule was established to provide health care to the Armenian community. In recent years the majority of patients receiving quality care at the facility are ethnic Turks.

In 1952 the Greek Foundation of Fener was the beneficiary of a property gift; it received one section of a building in Istamboul. The Foundation purchased the remaining part of the said building in 1958. The Yedikule Sourp Pirgic Foundation had received as gifts two pieces of real estate in 1943 and 1967, respectively, in Beyoglu and Kadikoy.

In 1992 the Treasury Department applied to the Turkish courts to delete the names of corresponding communities from the property deeds and turn over the properties to its custody. In three separate verdicts the Istamboul High Court satisfied the Treasury's request and expropriated the Greek and Armenian communities.

The irony in these confiscatory verdicts is in the fact that the minorities believe their rights are enshrined in the Lausanne Treaty, while the Turkish courts have just the opposite interpretation. Indeed, the Higher Court in Istamboul based its case on the May 8, 1974 decision of the Appellate Court, which held that the foundations, whose membership was made of the religious minorities, as defined by Lausanne Treaty, and whose constitutive documents did not contain statutes that they are entitled to acquire real estate; therefore, they were precluded from purchasing or accepting as gift such property.

When the Turkish Constitution was amended to respect minority rights – among other democratic measures – the ethnic minorities were elated and they experienced a moment of euphoria. They were led to believe that the new laws would put an end to arbitrary confiscation; moreover, the government would compensate the respective communities for the past expropriations or return the properties to the communities.

The euphoria did not last very long and disappointment ensued, because all the hopes were dashed and the government provided its own interpretation of those laws. The upshot was that the government would continue expropriating the minorities, this time only using more sophisticated deceptive tactics.

It is most ironic that while the Greek Patriarch Bartolomew goes to court to claim properties confiscated in the past, at the same period the Turkish government confiscates a new piece of real estate; indeed, like the Armenian community, the Greek Patriarchate owns a summer camp on the island of Kenali: since no Greek children were sent this summer to the camp, the Administration of Charity Foundations (Wakif) has requested the Patriarchate to turn over the camp to its ownership as "abandoned property". The Greek Patriarch is irate. He has appealed to the government to reverse its unfair decision. He has sent thirty letters to Ankara and none of them has been answered. Says the Patriarch, "Our Seminary in Heybeli was shut down, our properties were confiscated and our appeals have been ignored. Lately I had a chance to meet Turkey's Ambassador, Mr. Umid Pamir, in Brussels and I asked him whether the government would initiate a dialog with us. The camp property belongs to us, and we will never sign a document to cede the building to the government. And since it is impossible for us to defend our properties in this country, we have no alternative but to resort to the European Court for Human Rights. There is certainly bad faith here. The Greek community was 120,000 strong, we have trickled down to 2,000. Do the people abandon their homes and businesses and quit the country for no good reason?"

Indeed, over the last eight decades government persecution, expropriation of churches, cemeteries, schools and income properties have decimated the ethnic minorities. Methods change, laws are passed, but the goal remains the same: to drive out or to assimilate the minorities. Europe has to judge for itself if it needs a racist state as a member. It is not a matter of religion, nor is it Turkey's abominable past, but its future, its medieval mentality and the burden of dismal cultural values.

The Greek Patriarch has further stated that "If Turkey wishes to become an equal member of the European Union, it has to demonstrate some respect towards European values".

One would wish that the Armenian Patriarch had the same guts to stand up to the Turks and defend community rights. Instead he was dispatched by the Turkish government on a political mission to the European capitals to lobby for Turkish admission in the EU, vouching that finally Turkey had become a civilized nation. Upon his return he was hoping that Ankara would reward his efforts by solving outstanding community issues. After giving him the runaround from one office to the other, no community problem was solved; on the contrary, new problems were added deliberately.

No matter what would be the decision of the Strasbourg Court, it is worth it for Europeans to have a closer look into Turkey's domestic policies and decide if they think it is desirable to add a bully to the family of civilized nations.

Historically, Armenians are painfully aware of Turkish conduct, discriminatory policies and values.

It is a shame that President Bush had to reward Turkey for having practiced 150 years of democracy towards its minorities. It looks like people have different interpretations of the concept of "democracy". If the Turks have practiced democracy for that long, then we need to find another term to define mass murderers.

Now it is time for Europe to have an intimate knowledge of those values and judge Turkey.

9/6/05


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