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Euro Court Takes a Stand By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, September 18, 2008

Does good ever come from the European Court?  Apparently yes!  Or at least occasionally.  The court ruled in favor of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate and against the Turkish Government this summer over a symbolically important property dispute.


Orthodox Christians in what is today Turkey once numbered in the millions.  But Islamic pressure over the centuries, continuing through the 20th century, wore down ancient Orthodox communities through attrition.  About 30 percent of Turkey was Christian nearly a century ago, most of them Armenian or Greek Orthodox.  Today, Christians may number fewer than 100,000 out of a population of over 60 million.  And only about 3,000 are Greek Orthodox and under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch.  Even under an ostensibly secular government since the 1920’s, the dwindling Christian minority in Turkey has suffered under various legal and social pressures, including often insurmountable restrictions against churches retaining, much less purchasing or developing property.


The Ecumenical Patriarch is largely restricted to a small island of property in Istanbul.  Until the European Court ruling, the Patriarchate did not legally own any property in Turkey, including its own administration building.  Churches and related buildings, by law, are governed by private foundations.  Also by Turkish law, the Patriarch must be Turkish born, an increasingly onerous restriction as the number of Orthodox priests in Turkey has declined to a small handful.  With Turkey having closed the only Greek Orthodox seminary over 30 years ago, there is a real question as to whether there will be any Orthodox priests in future decades from whom a future Patriarch could be selected.  


The most recent dispute between the Patriarchate and the Turkish Government involved an historical orphanage on the Turkish resort island of Buyukada, a property that the Patriarchate bought in 1902.  Since the 1930’s, the orphanage was registered as a private foundation because Turkey would not recognize the Patriarchate as a legal entity.  Eleven years ago, the Turkish General Directorate for Foundations (Vakiflar), which oversees non-Muslim religious groups, seized the property after deciding the orphanage’s foundation no longer functioned.  Church properties have often been seized by the government under this pretext, as Greek Orthodox die off or emigrate.  In 1999, the Vakiflar sought to make the orphanage legally independent of the Patriarchate, which fought the seizure in the Turkish courts, finally resorting to the European Court.


In July, the European Court, sitting in Strasbourg, France, ruled that Turkey had violated the property rights clause of the European Convention on Human Rights by seizing the orphanage without financially reimbursing the Patriarchate.  The ruling is significant because Turkish non-recognition of property rights for non-Muslim groups is pervasive.  And if the court ruling stands, the orphanage site will be the only property in Turkey legally assigned to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom hailed the European Court’s decision in defense of the Patriarchate’s property, noting that Turkey chronically denies non-Muslims the “right to own and maintain property, to train religious clergy, and to offer religious education above high school.”


According to the U.S. Commission, Turkey has “consistently used convoluted regulations and undemocratic laws to confiscate—without opportunity for legal appeal or financial compensation—thousands of religious minority properties, particularly those belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Greek Orthodox community under patriarchal jurisdiction.


Turkey’s policies have led to the decline—and in some cases, virtual disappearance—of some of these religious minorities on lands they have inhabited for millennia.”  The dispute over the Buyukada orphanage, with an estimated real estate value of 80 million Euros, was the first time that the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which normally seeks a low profile, has directly sued the Turkish Government.  Turkey has 3 months to appeal the European Court’s decision, which, unless overturned, compels Turkey to return the property or pay for it.


“This is the first time the Ecumenical Patriarchate is recognized as the subject of rights under international law,” one of the lawyers for the Patriarchate told the Athens News.  “This is a major guarantee for the church's survival in Turkey."  Well, at least the ruling enshrouds the Patriarchate with some legal protection.  But there are many other petty harassments of the Patriarchate by Turkish law, which prohibits the Patriarchate from employing the term “ecumenical” for itself.  Turkey legally acknowledges the Patriarch as only the chief priest of the tiny Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey, even though the international Orthodox community has recognized the Patriarch as the communion’s senior prelate for 16 centuries.  And in Turkey, all citizens must list their religion on their identity papers, which helps to perpetuate different treatment for non-Muslims.


The major seminary for the Orthodox in Turkey has been closed by the government for over 30 years.  And non-Turkish Orthodox priests who work for the Patriarchate are unable to gain work visas from Turkey so they have to continuously enter the country as tourists.  In meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and other Turkish officials who belong to the governing Islamic party, the Patriarch has been told that wider freedoms for his flock depend on greater opportunities for Muslims living in Greece.  The Patriarch has pointed out that Orthodox living in Turkey are native-born Turkish citizens, while Muslims in Greece, who do in fact have greater liberties, usually are not Greek citizens.


Secularists in Turkey sometimes defend their government’s restrictions on religious activity by arguing that greater freedoms would assist radical Islamists far more than the small Christian minority.  But the boxing in of Turkey’s tiny Greek Orthodox population, with the evident hope that it and its senior Patriarch will fade away altogether into the mists of ancient history, seems exceptionally petty.  The European Court’s defense of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s property rights, at least in one case, may extend to the 2,000 year old Christian community in Turkey at least a few more years of breathing space.  

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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