“Since we had a new law, we had a new chance. The first meeting of VGM officials with non-Muslim community leaders in İstanbul in March 2009 has recently borne fruit,” Vingas said for Monday Talk. “What seemed so unattainable has become attainable.”
He was referring to the new law on non-Muslim foundations that was passed in Parliament in 2008 with some deficiencies because of nationalistic reactions as those foundations would be able to reclaim their seized properties.
In November 2006, Parliament passed a bill to return assets and property previously seized from non-Muslim foundations by the state, but it was vetoed by then-President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who claimed the bill was a national security risk and returned the bill to Parliament. That law was subject to much criticism because it violated the fundamental rights and liberties of non-Muslim citizens, which are guaranteed under the Turkish Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.” Then, civil society groups appealed to the government and Parliament not to pass the bill in its current form and to listen to representatives of non-Muslim foundations before coming up with a new draft.
“A few years ago, our foundations were regarded as ‘foreign' by some in Turkey, but today the highest-level officials of the country come together with non-Muslim community representatives,” he said.
In a more recent move, the government issued a decree to return properties confiscated from religious minorities since 1936, and in cases where property belonging to such organizations has been sold by the state to third parties, the religious foundation will be paid the market value of the property by the Ministry of Finance.
The decision was announced before an iftar (fast-breaking dinner) on Aug. 28, attended by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and representatives of non-Muslim communities in İstanbul, and non-Muslim groups in Turkey have highly praised the government's move.
The law on foundations in 1936 aimed to control non-Muslim foundations by placing them under the guardianship of the VGM. Since then government relations with non-Muslims have become even more troubled than before. The laws on foundations have been altered a few times, with new amendments following each other; new laws granting some rights, which were then rescinded by other regulations.
Turkey's population of nearly 75 million, mostly Muslim, includes about 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 Jews, 15,000 Assyrians and about 3,500 Greek Orthodox Christians. While Armenian groups have 52 and Jewish groups have 17 foundations, Greeks have 75. Some of the properties seized from those foundations include hospitals, schools and cemeteries.
Answering our questions, Vingas said that the government's relations with non-Muslims are changing for the better.
If we go back three years ago, when you were first elected to the post to represent non-Muslim foundations, what would you tell us about it?
Let me tell you about how I feel as a person living in this country. First of all, I've always felt like a full-fledged citizen in this country -- even at times when I faced troubles that made me think that I should not feel that way. In my opinion, I had only one way to go: to live as a full-fledged citizen while I protected my identity without being ashamed of it. I knew that I was not a person who could act in a different way. When I speak like this, some people might say: “Laki never had to endure any hardships. How would he know the difficulties and pains that the non-Muslim community has had to suffer from?” But even though I had my own difficult stories, I still felt like I am either a full-fledged citizen or not; I would not change my name or act as if I am not from a certain, different background than the majority. Before I was first elected for the post three years ago, I was dealing with the cultural events of the Greek community, and in the process I've been trying to establish bridges between and among different cultures. So recently, when there was an opportunity for non-Muslims to be representatives of their community in the VGM, I asked in the community what they were planning to do.
If we can pause there for a moment, let's talk about when exactly this right was provided for non-Muslims…
It was provided when the Law on Foundations was changed in 2008, and took effect in 2009. But while the bill concerning non-Muslim foundations was being discussed in Parliament in 2008, there were objections and attacks against the government going so far as to claim that it was betraying and selling out the country! The law passed with some deficiencies. During the implementation phase for the return of properties during the last three years, we've seen deficiencies that have been improved by recent decrees. At the time, in 2009, I was asking our Greek community what plans they had as we have rights for representation in the VGM. I proposed a couple of candidates from our community, but since they couldn't leave their positions to go to Ankara twice a month they couldn't accept.
And people started to look at me. With the support of our Greek, Armenian and Jewish foundations, I was elected and completed my three-year term.
And you were the first non-Muslim to be in that representative position in the VGM…
‘It was a difficult encounter for non-Muslims and government'
How were you received in Ankara?
It was an unusual coming together as both sides have had reservations toward each other, but we had to take risks. Non-Muslim cultures belong to this land, and they enrich this land. We are realities in this country. Approaching each other has not been very easy as it requires patience, analysis and compromise. If you are not sincere, if you are not at peace with yourself, if you are not there to find solutions to problems and if you don't believe that you can claim your future in your native land, you cannot be successful. My duty was to further develop relations between state authorities and non-Muslim foundations as well as try to develop relations among non-Muslim communities. Of course this needed to be done with actions to compensate for past injustices -- to give back what had been taken unjustly before. Another duty of mine has been making the non-Muslim communities more participatory as they have started to feel more relaxed and at ease. Seeing and acting on that reality is possible through laws; it is not enough to be aware of it in one's conscious and religion. It is certain that the non-Muslim communities do not have much political power since they are few in number. They are not an economic power anymore, either. They don't have the power to lead socially. However, Turkey has a major responsibility to keep their legacy and culture alive since it could enrich and positively contribute the young generations of Turkey. Turkey has a responsibility not only to preserve them but also to provide opportunities for them to flourish.
Do you think that the great distance between the VGM and the non-Muslim communities has been narrowed in recent years?
There was a huge distance between them. First, that distance should be reduced before doing anything else. Giving presents or even rights to non-Muslims communities without establishing a trusting environment would do no good; and for trust to develop there must be a dialogue. Since we had a new law, we had a new chance. We are finally seeing the results of the 2009 meeting of VGM officials with non-Muslim community leaders. There were about 200 people during that meeting, which seemed so impossible before it happened. Until that time, relations between the VGM and the non-Muslim community has been through the assistance of certain people. Only those people were able to establish relations with VGM officials. But we supported a more open relationship, more open dialogue in which each citizen would be able approach his or her representative. After that meeting, we had more gatherings together. And what seemed so unattainable has become attainable. Here, I have to underline the importance of the government's positive approach to the issue. A few years ago, our foundations were regarded as “foreign” by some in Turkey, but today the highest-level officials of the country come together with non-Muslim community representatives.
How do you think the opposition has changed in that regard?
We haven't seen any political resistance from the opposition in the last three years. There are some close relations at the local level -- the Büyükada, Bakırköy and Sarıyer municipalities work with the non-Muslims communities, and non-Muslims can assume active roles in these municipalities.
VGM does not have very much visibility in society, does it?
The VGM is a closed government institution, and its services are not well known. It has recently founded two universities, Fatih Sultan Mehmet University and Bezmiâlem University. There are also major valuable restorations that the VGM has undertaken, among them churches and synagogues.
You have a major undertaking in your second term at the VGM as there will be a process to return a number of properties to non-Muslims.
The maximum number of applications that we expect is 350. They will be reviewed, and then there will be a decision made about how many of those will be actually returned. It's been four months since the governmental decree was announced, but there have not been many applications so far.
Isn't it a problem that the VGM still has the final say over registering the title deeds of the properties that will be returned to their owners?
This is a political decision. The reasons that led to the founding of the VGM in 1924 might have changed today, and the institution might need reforms in light of today's developments. And that reform might be possible if there is the political will.
‘Non-Muslims demand equal rights'
There are still some concerns about some of the properties because they do not fall under the category of properties to be returned. One such property concerns the Armenian community; the Tuzla Armenian Children's Camp was built by Hrant Dink and it was bought by the Gedikpaşa Armenian Foundation. But subsequent to a later Supreme Court of Appeals ruling, acquisitions made after the infamous 1936 declaration have no legal validity, and therefore had to be returned to their former owners. As a result, the Tuzla camp was returned to its first owner.
I agree with the community's rightful needs. We also have to realize that property returns have been possible since 2003 with missing parts being completed in each next step. It is important to see how the implementation of the laws will be. Let's first take advantage of new developments provided by the law. It is of historic importance that we will compensate the foundations for some of their losses. I have no doubt that all those new and recent laws are passed with utmost sincerity. And nobody says that rights cannot be sought further. It takes time. Yes, we are tired; we are losing our patience. Look what is happening to our schools; they are being closed down one by one. Non-Muslim schools' representatives recently had a meeting with the minister of education [Ömer Dinçer]. It was a very important meeting. It wouldn't really matter if you gave properties back to uneducated, ignorant, prejudiced and insecure people. But if our rights to education are granted without political influence, then we will be strengthened. Without education, buildings do not matter. I hope non-Muslim foundations will be strengthened after receiving some of their properties back. After that, they can participate to a greater degree in society. We have been longing to see non-Muslims as natural citizens of Turkey.
Would you elaborate on this concept of natural citizenship?
Non-Muslims citizens of this country should not be given anything just because this is what the European Union wants or because the world is watching Turkey with regard to this issue. The purpose is to make non-Muslims feel at ease. They should not be defined within the limits of how much property they had or that they have now; they should not be defined by looking at their past. They are not “foreigners.” They don't have a “secret agenda.” They have a culture, and they can contribute to progress in Turkey just like any other Turkish citizen. They can share sorrows and joys of this country just like any other Turkish citizen. They should be accepted and treated as equal citizens. We do not want to be on Turkey's political agenda anymore. We do not have to be in a defensive position, proving all the time our devotion to the country.
Greek seminary to be opened when religious freedom granted
Why is the Halki Seminary on Heybeliada still closed?
The Halki Seminary has been closed for years as a result of political speculation. It has been the Patriarchate that has been paying dearly for it. Currently, Turkey is in the process of preparing a new constitution. It's been a good process since we are all debating what should and shouldn't be in that new constitution. This is quite different than the process of the 1980s when a military-designed constitution was imposed on people. The new constitution is supposed to grant equal citizenship for all people in Turkey; it is supposed to provide religious freedom, freedom of expression and the right to assembly. It is supposed to prohibit hate speech and discrimination. If those are granted in the new constitution, the seminary will automatically be opened because opening the seminary falls under the freedom of religion issue. When there is freedom of religion, then adherents of a religion should be able to educate their religious people.
Elected to the Council of the General Assembly of the VGM -- attached to the Prime Minister's Office in Ankara -- as the Representative of Non-Muslim Foundations at the end of 2008, he will serve his second term in the position following elections on Dec. 25. A Turkish citizen of Greek descent, living in Yeniköy, İstanbul, Vingas is a businessman. He actually studied marine engineering. He is the elected representative of 164 non-Muslim foundations in the council of the VGM.
In his words:
“I never practiced my engineering profession. My father died when I graduated from high school. We did not have connections in society, which was typical for a non-Muslim family at the time. We were living in our own, isolated world. I had applied, through an intermediary, to some companies to find a job. But I found that companies had some non-Muslim employees and did not want to hire more non-Muslims. I gave up looking for a job in engineering thinking that the situation was out of my hands, and I was not going to be able to find a job in that field. I graduated from university in 1983. These were tough years, really tough [following the Sept. 12, 1980, military coup]. Every day, we would enter the university after identification checks; there were military policemen everywhere. Sometimes we were not even allowed to use bathrooms. Once I was sitting next to a student who asked me if I was Greek. I said, yes, but I was uneasy; we were already dealing with the issues of being leftist and rightist at the time and now this! He sensed my anxiety, then smiled and said, ‘Don't worry, I am an Armenian.' Unfortunately, we grew up with such anxieties.”