The orphanage is a large, wooden building—an architectural jewel built in 1898 by a French company and bought in 1903 by Eleni Zarifi, the member of a rich Istanbul Greek family who donated it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for Christian orphans. The orphanage was closed down in 1964 and the building left to decay.
The sentence is very important because for the first time the European Court requires the Turkish state to return the property without compromise (restitutio in integrum); for example, paying compensation in order to keep the building.
Another important feature of the ruling is the explicit recognition of the legal status of the Patriarchate. The Turkish state has never recognised the Ecumenical Patriarchate despite improved relations between Ankara and the Fener (the Istanbul neighbourhood where the Patriarchate is located), especially since Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power.
The prime minister accompanied by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I visited the former orphanage for the first time on 15 August 2009, and since then has said on several occasions that he would not oppose the sentence of the European Court in Strasbourg.
Since the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not legally recognised by the Turkish state, it cannot own property in Turkey. It is only allowed to meet the religious needs of the Orthodox community of Istanbul. Even its headquarters in the Fener belong to the Saint George Foundation (Vakif). The same is true for other religious minorities in Turkey.
Political and diplomatic circles in Strasbourg point out that the ruling now opens new perspectives for religious minorities recognised by Turkey, most notably Jews and Armenians, based on the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). The same is true for the Catholic minority, whose members live in an unclear legal status and survive by maintaining a few buildings amid difficulties and uncertainties.
Given its importance, Turkish media have given the sentence an extensive coverage. Turkish European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış told reporters that the government was not surprised by the ruling but could not say whether recognition would be given or not.
Some time ago, Prime Minister Erdogan asked Bartholomew what the Patriarchate would do with the orphanage if it were handed back. The ecumenical patriarch answered that the intention was to turn one section into an international centre for the environment, and the other into a centre for inter-faith dialogue.