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Cablegate: Religious Minorities Still Face Difficulties In

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 ISTANBUL 000868

SIPDIS


SENSITIVE


E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV TU PHUM
SUBJECT: RELIGIOUS MINORITIES STILL FACE DIFFICULTIES IN
TURKEY


REF: A. 2002 ANKARA 8881
B. 2002 ANKARA 7290
C. 2003 ISTANBUL 202
D. 2003 ANKARA 2909
E. ISTANBUL 843


1. (U) Summary: Prime Ministry human rights Director Vahit
Bicak offered an upbeat assessment of Turkey's progress in
addressing religious minority foundations' legal issues at a
May 15 NGO-organized symposium. Nonetheless, religious
minority foundations stressed that they still face serious
challenges. Foundations are finding it difficult in some
cases to transfer the registration of property they control
from individuals' names (including Jesus and Mary, on
occasion) to the foundations' names. Moreover, the
government has approved only a handful of their petitions to
recover seized properties. Turkey's implementation of EU
reforms, especially as regards religious minorites' property
rights, remains incomplete. End Summary.


The Good...
-----------
2. (SBU) Representatives of religious groups, academia and
government attended a May 15 symposium organized by the
Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) to
discuss the legal problems still facing religious minority
foundations after the passage of reform laws some 18 months
ago (refs A through D). Vahit Bicak, Chairman of the Prime
Ministry's Human Rights Commission, was a presenter at two
sessions, and he seemed to go over well with the potentially
critical audience. (Note: symposium organizers tell us that
Bicak had originally been invited to attend the symposium,
but that Bicak himself insisted on making the two
presentations. End note.) Having served as an intern/jurist
for the European Court of Human Rights in 1999, Bicak
comfortably detailed the European Convention on Human Rights'
religious freedom provisions in a morning session. Speaking
as a human rights lawyer rather than as a government
official, his candor was refreshing. When discussing the
"freedom from expressing religious preference to the state,"
for example, he acknowledged that this invited discussion of
Turkey's inclusion of religion on the national identity card.


3. (U) Bicak closed the symposium with his afternoon speech
on Turkey's accomplishments in the area of religious freedom.
The return of property sacred to the Baha'i community in
Edirne topped his list of concrete advances. He also pointed
to improved dialogue between the government and foundations,
the ability of foundations to engage in international
activities, and less onerous requirements for officially
changing religions. He claimed that there was an emerging
consensus that all foundations be considered under one law,
instead of the current situation which considers religious
foundations separately from others. As regards property, he
pointed to foundations' ability to register property under
their own names and a more reasonable deadline for applying
to recover property. Bicak also announced that a previously
secret "Minority Control Commission" had been abolished and a

SIPDIS
new inter-ministerial commission had been appointed to
resolve outstanding issues with the communities (Ref E).


4. (U) Adnan Ertem, the Regional Deputy Director of the
General Directorate for Foundations attended the TESEV
symposium, and during a Q/A session thanked panelists for
their "fair evaluation of positive developments." As the day
went on he developed a slightly more defensive posture in his
interventions, but stayed until the bitter end and mostly
kept his cool despite representing the target of the day's
heaviest criticism. His participation in the event was
positive in and of itself. Moreover, TESEV organizer Cem
Murat Sofuoglu noted that in a similar symposium two years
earlier, six police officers had attended. This time there
was only one, he said, who had asked permission to attend.
Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a lawyer representing the Protestant
community, at one point remarked that "standards were so low
that this counts as progress," but many agreed that a new and
more productive attitude, when compared to years past, was
displayed by the government officials present at the
symposium.


The Bad...
----------
5. (U) Despite Bicak's upbeat tone and the improved
atmospherics, religious minority foundations continue to face
problems. The regulations which came into effect in January
2003, for example, allow religious minority foundations to
apply to the General Directorate for Foundations to register
"property already at their disposal," but not registered in
the foundation's name. At the symposium, Ata Sakmar, a
lawyer affiliated with the Greek Orthodox community,
explained one reason why some such applications have been
rejected. In the past, Greek Orthodox properties were often
registered in the name of individuals in order to avoid
expropriation, and many were actually registered in the name
of "Jesus" or "Mary." According to Sakmar, in the absence of
the official registrant's consent to changing the
registration to a foundation's name, these petitions are
rejected. "I almost had to author a communique to summon
Jesus to the courtroom last year", he said, "in order to
submit successful applications to the General Directorate."


6. (U) A negligible number of petitions to recover property
that had been seized by the government has been granted. In
addition to difficulties in recovering properties seized
since 1935, there is still the outstanding question of
properties expropriated and/or disposed of by the government
prior to 1935. It is not clear whether the 2002 reforms even
allow for applications to reclaim such property. In any
case, implementation of the spirit if not the letter of the
reform measures passed in 2002 remains elusive.


And the Tense...
---------------
7. (SBU) Istanbul Muftu Cagrici was among three religious
leaders invited to make opening remarks at the TESEV event.
While the Armenian Orthodox and Ecumenical Orthodox
Patriarchs sent representatives in their stead, Dr. Cagrici
not only delivered his remarks personally, but stayed
throughout the day and participated actively, and for the
most part, constructively. In a comment that provided an
insight into the "us vs. them" mentality deeply engrained in
some government bureaucrats, however, he implied that perhaps
Turkey's Law 1062, the so-called "Reciprocity Law," might be
appropriate to consider in response to restrictions on ethnic
Turks in Western Thrace. Numerous participants rejected that
idea, stating that the Reciprocity Law "should not even be
mentioned here," as it is meant to affect nationals of
foreign states, not Turkish citizens.


Comment
-------
8. (SBU) The mere fact that this conference (reportedly
only the second to be held on this subject since the 2002
reform measures were passed) took place with the
participation of the Muftu and attendance and interventions
by a representative of the Foundations Directorate is a
welcome development. Discussion was open and lively, but as
the reference to Western Thrace clearly indicated, the
religious minorities continue to be subjected to an "us vs.
them" attitude by state bureaucrats (e.g., minority groups
still fall under the "Foreigners" Branch of the Istanbul
Police Department). Changing societal and bureaucratic
attitudes that figure into the development of religious
freedom policies will be at least as difficult as legislating
property returns. But as one participant noted at the end of
the day, "It would be strange if transformation -- and we are
talking about transformation here -- were easy."


9. (U) For additional background information and reporting
from ConGen Istanbul, see our classified website at
http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/eur/Istanbul/inde x.cfm.
ARNETT

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