Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Until recently, the total number of Rum Orthodox in Turkey was pronounced to be around 2,000–3,000. However, other research has estimated the community is at least 4,000 -5,000 strong, with some calculations suggesting that the total number is over 16,000, including more than 12,000 not officially recognized by the Turkish state as Rum Orthodox.
After the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, the process of eradicating non-Muslims from Anatolia continued with the 1923 population exchange agreement, whereby Turkey and Greece ‘exchanged’, i.e. expelled their respective Rum and Turkish minorities, with only a few exceptions. In 1964, having failed to resolve the Cyprus conflict as it had wished, the Turkish government deported tens of thousands of Rums of Istanbul who carried Greek passports, including those married to Turkish citizens, confiscating their properties and assets.
The de facto ban against the Rum Orthodox Patriarchate against using its 14-centuries old ‘ecumenical’ title was turned into law through the decision of the High Court of Appeals on 26 June 2007. In a case concerning the dismissal of a priest, the court held that the Patriarchate’s claim to the ecumenical title has no legal basis. The ruling is not only ultra vires, since the court ruled on a religious question which exceeds its mandate, but is also against the letter and spirit of Lausanne, the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
While the Treaty of Lausanne protects the property rights of non-Muslim minorities, the Directorate General of Foundations (Vakıflar Genel Müdürlugü, VGM) has exercised an unchecked and arbitrary authority over these institutions. This has resulted in the confiscation of churches and their properties and the Rum Orthodox community has suffered acutely from the inadequate lack of restitution following confiscation of its property. The VGM is also able to overtake management of those minority foundations, which it considers have non-functioning boards of directors. But the lack of functioning boards has often been caused by the state – for example, the Istanbul governorship did not allow the Rum Orthodox community to hold board elections after 1991. As a result, the boards of many foundations in Gökçeada and Bozcaada became non-operational and the VGM overtook management of these foundations.
However, a 2005 ruling by the Council of State overturning a 1997 VGM decision to take over the management of the Büyükada Rum Girls’ and Boys’ Orphanage Foundation was a welcome judicial intervention. The court held that the authority of the VGM to assume the management of non-functioning foundations did not extend to those belonging to non-Muslim minorities. The VGM appealed against the decision and continued for some years to retain the management of the orphanage before the title finally came under the control of the Patriarchate.
Despite protection under the Treaty of Lausanne, the Lausanne minorities cannot fully enjoy their religious freedom. The state denies their religious institutions legal personality, which causes great difficulties in administration, property rights and clergy training. The state does not recognize the Rum Orthodox Patriarchate and deals instead solely with the Patriarch himself, which results in a highly inefficient system. Due to the lack of legal personality, the official registry records do not name the Patriarchate as the legal owner of its properties, leaving the Patriarchate vulnerable to confiscation of its properties. The ban on the training of clergy, the absence of operative Christian theological schools, and the citizenship criterion imposed on clergy eligible to provide religious services in Turkey creates a shortage of priests.
The Rum Orthodox theological seminary on the island of Heybeliada (Halki) remains closed. As a result, there is a risk that there may not be a suitable candidate to succeed the Patriarch upon his death. In February 2018, the Ecumenical Patriarch condemned the closure, which for decades has obstructed the training of clergy, as ‘a sin and an injustice’ and called on Turkish authorities to reopen the seminary.
According to a Rum Orthodox priest, the authorities are ‘perfectly aware that if the Halki seminary does not re-open one day, the Patriarchate will close down’.
Rums are easily identifiable by their accents and as such can quickly fall prey to the discrimination from public officials when accessing public services that, according to testimony from the community, they can experience on a daily basis. Discrimination also pervades the Turkish education system.
Updated June 2018
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