Monday, February 21, 2005


Recently, a Greek actress inadvertedly stumbled into a mosque in Western Thrace, almost sparking off a violent riot. While Athens went to great lengths to placate its Muslim minority fearing raised eyebrows in Europe in Turkey, the last unhappy remnants of the Greek community in Constantinople, Imvros and Tenedos are slowly being stripped of their community properties. Though this comes at a pertinent time within European history, given that Turkey has been given the green light to traverse the tortuous path to European unification, it appears that beyond bare lip service being paid to the necessity of Turkey affording its Christian minority civil rights, the blatant disrespect for proprietorial rights barely bats a European eyelid.

The gradual stripping away of communal property commenced with a judgment handed down by the Turkish Supreme Court in 1974. In accordance with that judgment (505/8-5-1974), still in force today, minority charitable institutions are not permitted to acquire property, unless this is specifically stated in their original constitution. The judgment’s closing stating that the ban against owning property is vital as these charitable institutions pose "a danger to the State." Predictably enough, successive Turkish governments have legislated to give this decision a retrospective application, so that 150 properties, donated by wealthy Constantinopolitans to these institutions have been confiscated by the State, including the great hospital at Valikli, and other top shelf properties in the suburbs of Pera and Fatih.

Recently, the Turkish Parliament legislated ostensibly to "protect" minority property holdings. However, all it managed to do was to ratify previous property confiscations, as well as permit the registration of a few titles whose owner’s entitlements were legally unassailable. It is interesting however that since that time, no proceeding issued by minority groups seeking a declaration that they are entitled to possess properties acquired or gifted to them have been accepted by the Turkish courts. Instead, the relevant government authorities are engaged in a process of obstructing recourse to the often contradictory new legislation, in an attempt to spark off a further round of confiscations.

The Vakouf General Office, which has jurisdiction over minority institutions' assets, continuous to ply its traditional but effective approach to the issue, realizing that the total confiscation of these institutions' property holdings is only a matter of time. When the committees of these institutions cannot be filled owing to death or emigration to Greece, a public administrator is appointed to administer their assets. This invariably results in the institution being wound up and its assets being nationalized. Soon after, these properties are sold at rock bottom prices to Turkish private citizens, ensuring that any recourse to the International Court by the aggrieved minorities, will not result in the return of those properties to them. A similar approach is adopted for Greek schools where enrolments are low.

Other, more ingenious tactics are also used to appropriate land from the hapless Greek minority. Recently, the property trust of the charitable institution "Κοιμήσεως της Θεοτόκου" on Tenedos, was also targeted. It should be noted here that Tenedos, under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty between Greece and Turkey was demarcated as an area where its native Greek population would enjoy autonomy and have its religious, cultural and property rights respected. Since that time, a campaign of intimidation and persecution has seen the Greek population of that island denuded to a few hundred elderly and very frightened people. The Board of Trustees of "Κοιμήσεως της Θεοτόκου" received an order from the Vakouf General Office to register its property holdings on the national property register. When the Board of Trustees attempted to comply with this order, they were told by the Courts that their entitlement to those properties was not recognized. Thus, a portfolio of over 100 properties was confiscated by the Turkish Treasury. The Greek communities of Tataula, St George, Antifonitou, Therapeia and Megalo Reuma are also currently facing similar confiscations, while the Vakouf General Office is also seeking to confiscate the churches of St George Antifonitis, St George of Edirnekapi, Taxiarkhon of Arnavutkoy, St Dimitrios of Kurtulus, the monastery of Christ on Proti island and the monastery of Christ on Antigoni island, citing as justification, the dearth of churchgoers, who have all been compelled to leave the area.

The Turkish government's insistence not to recognize the Oecumenical Patriarchate as a legal entity has also caused it to lose its only holding, the orphanage of Pringipo Island, and the other 20 or so properties that belong to it. These confiscations are so blatantly illegal that they have even begun to concern Turkish legal experts. Nevertheless, recourse to Turkish courts is practically impossible, considering that such confiscations are deemed by the Turkish government, to be of "national importance." This then is the way freedom of religion and culture is interpreted by this European Union candidate. While the U.S and Europe may have recognized the Oecumenical Patriarchate as the titular head of Orthodoxy, no pressure seems to have been exerted upon Turkey to do the same. Indeed, Turkey is quite adept at recognizing lip service for what it is, and carries on its sordid task of extirpating the last remnants of its Christian minorities, unhindered by the "bleeding hearts" of the West.

What taxes the mind more than Europe's inability or rather disinclination to provide stringent ground rules for Turkey's integration with Europe, is the Greek government's practice of placing the Greek minority's property rights rather low on the agenda of Graeco-Turkish relations. Indeed, this seems to be fatal, considering that recourse does exist for claims of compensation or restitution of wrongly appropriated land by minority groups, to the European Court of Human Rights. Given that legal experts generally rate the Constantinopolitans' chances of success at that forum at 90%, one is at a loss to consider why this avenue is not being vigorously pursued. Fear, and a repeat of the pogrom of 1955 may have a lot to do with this.

This notwithstanding, the precedent set by the Loizidou case in occupied Cyprus could be wielded with great effect both on worldwide public opinion and Turkish policy. Though it may prevaricate and attempt to avoid responsibilities, a Turkey that will enter the European Union will have to eventually accept the judgments of its courts or face exclusion and/or expulsion. In contrast to Greece, which is content to leave those who more than anyone else have remained true to her through over 600 years of asphyxiating pressure, Turkey has identified the risk of mass applications to the European Courts by Christian communities and it is for this reason that confiscated land is sold off to third parties so quickly. Presumably, if push comes to shove, Turkey will seek a "compensation deal," which will come too little to late for the terrorized last few remnants of Byzantium, unless legal assistance is given to them by their compatriots.

Similarly, there is absolutely no point in being in Europe, unless Greece utilizes the European judicial system to the full, in order to protect its cultural heritage and its people. There is no reason why this cannot be done for instance, not only in the case of minority charitable institutions, but in the matter of the re-opening of the Halki Theological College. Despite promises by Prime Minister Erdogan and the fact that a multitude of private educational institutions have now been opened in Turkey, the Turkish government denies its Christian minorities their religious freedom by keeping this important College closed. Furthermore, it has legislated so that the various Greek graveyards that dot Constantinople now belong to local councils, rather than the Church and the Greek community. These are issues in which Greece needs to actively assist the ailing Greek community of Constantinople, rather than merely pay lip service to it like the West does, as if it were an alien, unimportant flock of ghosts soon to be consigned only to an existence in the musty tomes of history.

While the Greek government prevaricates, the Turkish government has now extended its rapacious appetite to land to the savouring of private, individual Greek holdings, recently confiscating the vast property holdings of the Zarifis family on Antigoni. Perhaps, ensconced in the luxuries and privileges of our own western lifestyles, we forget what it is to be dispossessed, to lose all of one's belongings or what it is like to be a prisoner in one's own home, constantly in terror. It is to the Constantinopolitans' eternal praise that they, in true Cavafyesque fashion chose to guard the Thermopylae of Hellenism until the bitter end, while we, the medisers, see the ephialtic menace approach and do nothing to guard the rearguard paths. Finally, in the words of the Bishop of Sevasteia Dimitrios, let us never forget that while Athens may be the queen of our eyes, Constantinople is the queen of our souls, a mother who has given much and drunk much bitterness. It is incumbent upon all of us to demand justice and protection for our terrified compatriots, the last Romioi.


First published 21 February 2005