VATICAN CITY -- The Turkish prime minister's announcement that the government will return hundreds of properties confiscated from non-Muslim religious groups or compensate the groups for properties sold to third parties is "a historic decision," said the Vatican nuncio to Turkey.
"Even though the Roman Catholics will not benefit from this, it is an important step that is a credit to Turkey," said Archbishop Antonio Lucibello, the nuncio.
"It is a sign that is not just good, it's an excellent sign that the government wants to reconstruct the unity of the country so there no longer are first-class and second-class citizens," the nuncio told Catholic News Service Aug. 30 in a telephone interview from Ankara.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Aug. 28 that his government would return hundreds of pieces of property -- including schools, orphanages and hospitals -- that were confiscated by the government in 1936. The properties involved belonged to officially recognized religious minorities: Jews, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics and Chaldean Catholics.
Although Pope Benedict XVI, human rights supporters and the European Union have pressed Turkey to recognize all religions, the Latin-rite Catholic community and Protestant churches do not have official legal standing in Turkey.
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Archbishop Lucibello said the decision does not include the Church of St. Paul at Tarsus, now a government-run museum, which church officials have asked to have back.
"The government has made a commitment to continue looking for a solution, and this decision gives us good reasons to hope," the archbishop said. The case of the Church of St. Paul, he said, is complicated by the fact that it was built by the Armenians, then taken over by the Greek Orthodox and restored by Latin-rite Catholics.
Otmar Oehring, an expert on religious freedom in Turkey and director of the human rights office of Missio, the German Catholic aid agency, described Erdogan's decision as "a positive and courageous step."
"There wasn't any need for Erdogan to do this because talks with the European Union" -- which Turkey has been trying to join -- "are at a standstill. This decision won't restart the talks because the EU has other pressing problems," Oehring told CNS in a telephone interview.
Oehring said several years ago that Erdogan forced the government to return much of the confiscated property it still owned. The latest decision would have the government compensate religious communities for properties the government has sold to third parties.
"It will be costly for the Turkish state: I've read 700 million euros or about $1 billion," he said.
The Turkish Constitution proclaims Turkey as a secular country, but its unique brand of secularism involves almost absolute control over religion, including Islam. The government builds and funds mosques and employs Muslim prayer leaders. It has granted full legal status only to the foundations formed by a few minority religious groups, including the Jewish community and the Greek Orthodox.
Minorities like the Latin-rite Catholic and Protestant communities, "which do not have foundations, aren't affected by the new decision. This means that the Catholic Church is in the same negative position it was in."
Latin-rite Catholic parishes, dioceses and religious orders "own property, but it's not clear if that ownership will be recognized. Tomorrow the government could say, 'You don't exist legally, so you don't own it,'" he said.
Other Catholic properties are owned by a foreign government, he said. Catholic parishes operate on property owned by the Italian and French embassies in Ankara and the French consulate in Istanbul. The Latin-rite cathedral in Izmir is a protectorate of France, he said.
"For many years, non-Muslims were too afraid to ask for their properties back, but there also is the fact that there no longer are Christian communities in many of those places," Oehring said.
"The Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans had many buildings all over Turkey and they just don't care because they don't have the numbers" of faithful to use them or personnel to staff them, he said. "But they still should seek compensation."