11/10/2006, 00.00
TURKEY
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Turkey adopts new law on religious minorities' property rights

The issue was part of the European Union's must-do reform list. But for the Ecumenical Patriarchate the changes envisaged are inadequate. The government announces possible changes to controversial Section 301 of the Penal Code.

Ankara (AsiaNews) – Turkey's parliament approved a law that would give non-Muslim minorities property rights. At the same time, the Turkish government is examining the possibility of changing Section 301 of Turkey's Penal Code. Both changes are preconditions set by the European Union in its negotiations with Ankara over its EU membership application. None the less, the new law on non-Muslim groups' property rights is likely to fall short of EU expectations.

The demand by largely Christian religious minorities for the right to own real estate falls within a set demands related to freedom of religion. Under existing legislation, these groups are legally barred from owning real estate.

The most glaring example is that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which is the historic See of the foremost Orthodox patriarch.

The small complex of buildings belongs to St George's Monastery. However, since the monastery cannot own any real estate, legally speaking, the real owner is St George himself. But his existence could be challenged in court. Indeed, the saint himself would be hard pressed to appear before any court to stop any seizure of "his" buildings. The same is true for any notarised sale. In other words, the monastery simply lacks any legal protection.

Under the new law, religious minorities could set up foundations who would be allowed to own real estate, but patriarchate sources told AsiaNews that the new legislation falls short of what is needed.

First of all, the law does not address the issue of restitution, of returning all the property seized in the past from religious groups for whatever reasons. Secondly, the rights of religious minorities in Turkey are conditional, subject to the principle of reciprocity. The rights of people with Turkish nationality but belonging to the "Latin" or "Greek" religious minority are dependent upon the rights of Turks living in the countries associated with the non-Muslim religious group.

The government also announced that it plans to modify Section 301 of Turkey's Penal Code. This article punishes anyone who openly denigrates "Turkishness", the Republic, the government, the legal system, the army and the police with six months to three years in jail . It is this section that has allowed the authorities to prosecute anyone who dares criticise Turkey like Noble Prize laureate for literature Orhan Pamuk.

But for the European Union, Section 301 violates fundamental freedoms. The recent EU report on Turkey's progress said that it is open to sweeping interpretations. Similarly, if is narrowly used it allows the state to prosecute people for expressing non-violent opinion. 

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