It is no secret that in Erdogan’s Turkey, much more so than under recent Kemalist governments, religious freedoms and the rights and property of Christian communities have been abrogated, or abolished. A most recent case, as revealed by Christopher Sheklian, writing in publicorthodoxy.org, the site of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University highlights how the Turkish State is being manipulated into seizing the assets of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Last month, the Court of Cassation in Turkey ruled that the historic and contested Sanasaryan Han will be the property of the Turkish state. Built in 1895, the Han (“Inn”) was bought by the foundation established by the philanthropist Mkrtich Sanasaryan to support the Sanasaryan College in the city of Erzurum in eastern Anatolia. It was put under the administration of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1920.
In 1928, the Turkish State confiscated the building and maintained its revenue and rights until the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey filed a lawsuit for its return with the Istanbul 13th Civil Court of First Instance in 2014. After a circuitous legal route, the Court of Cassation—the court of last instance for civil and criminal cases—ruled last February (2018) for the admissibility of the lawsuit and filed for the return of the title deed to the Armenian Patriarchate.
Widely seen to be a major victory for the Armenian Patriarchate and the question of religious minority properties in the Republic of Turkey, it seemed the Armenian Patriarchate would assume the deed within a couple years. Last month, however, the same Court of Cassation ruled that the title deed will remain with the Turkish state. The lawyer in the case, Ali Elbeyoğlu, plans to appeal the case to the Constitutional Court.
The case of the Sanasaryan Han is just one case—albeit a very high-profile case—regarding the properties of religious minority groups in the Republic of Turkey. According to the Treaty of Lausanne, which established the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, Turkey must provide certain provisions to its religious minority communities. Included in these rights is the right to own collective property, of which the most numerous and consequential is vakıf property, a form of endowment or foundation established for charitable purposes and grounded in the Islamic injunction to charity.
Vakıf, the Turkish version of the Arabic waqf, is a complex legal entity developed over the years in Islamic jurisprudence which allowed the owner of a revenue-generating property—an apartment complex, say, or an inn—to donate that property in perpetuity for the charitable object of the donor’s choice. In the Ottoman Empire, the recognized non-Muslim populations that together constituted the so-called millet system were also allowed to endow this form of charitable foundation.
By the end of the Ottoman era, the major mode of funding community projects for non-Muslim populations was through the vakıfs. As a result of legal continuities into the Republic of Turkey, many older vakıfs were grandfathered into the Ministry of Foundations, today the Directorate General of the Foundations (VGM, Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü). All the non-Muslim foundations were grouped together as Cemaat Vakıfları, translated on the VGM website as “Community Foundations.”
I have elsewhere detailed the vicissitudes of the Community Foundations since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, but the case of the Sanasaryan Han demonstrates two crucial issues facing the Community Foundations in Turkey that bear on the overall health of the non-Muslim communities there: the confiscation of properties by declaring them defunct and the question of legal personhood.
Originally, the Sanasaryan Han was connected to a Sanasaryan Foundation, namely the vakıf founded by Mkrtich Sanasaryan to support the financial health of the Sanasaryan College in Erzurum. That is, a bundle of revenue-generating properties, mostly donated by Mkrtich and including the Han in Istanbul, together funded the Sanasaryan College. With the general depopulation of Armenian, Greek, and other Christians as well as Jews from the Anatolian heartland that began during World War I and continued into the Republican era, many non-Muslim vakıfs were declared defunct when the charitable object of the foundation no longer existed.
This was one of the legal mechanisms by which property was seized. So, in the case of the Sanasaryan Han, the depopulation of Christians from Erzurum and the closing of the College in the eastern city paved the route to the seizure of the Han in Istanbul, since the object of the charitable property—the Sanasaryan College—was no longer in operation. Designating vakıfs as defunct has been one of the major vehicles of expropriation of religious minority communal property throughout the Republican era.
Second, the case of Sanasaryan Han raises the question of legal personality and the status of the Armenian Patriarchate. The lawsuit was filed by the Armenian Patriarchate because control of the Han was transferred to the Patriarchate after Erzurum College was shut down. However, the legal standing of the Armenian Patriarchate is incredibly precarious: it never achieved the legal status of a vakıf. This means that while individual churches have “legal personality” through the status of vakıf, the Armenian Patriarchate itself does not.
In fact, the Sanasaryan Han case was pivotal because the courts allowed the Patriarchate to file the case at all, essentially admitting that it did have legal personality. As the lawyer Elbeyoğlu noted, by not throwing out the case on procedural grounds, the Court of Cassation implicitly granted legal personality to the Armenian Patriarchate—though crucially, it still lacks the secure status of something like a vakıf.
What makes these questions of property and legal personality so consequential? First, it is important to note that while I have focused here on one court case that pertains to the Armenian Apostolic Church, the lack of legal personality plagues other religious minority institutions. More fundamentally, nearly every possible communal activity of the religious minorities is funded and supported through the finances of the revenue-generating property of vakıfs: hospitals, cemeteries, schools, orphanages, and of course, the churches and houses of worship themselves.
Rare is the communal Christian endeavor in the Republic of Turkey that is not somehow supported by a vakıf. In recent years, there have been movements to make vakıf administration more transparent and more democratic, suggesting that the members of the community are deeply aware of the importance of the financial, institutional, and physical support of the foundations and the attendant power that comes with that support. The legal personality of the most important non-Muslim institutions and the health of the vakıfs is of paramount importance to the well-being of the Christian and other non-Muslim communities in the Republic of Turkey today.