This study, which focuses on the property ownership problems Armenian foundations in Istanbul have encountered because of state practices, is the product of a research project the Hrant Dink Foundation carried out from March 2011 to October 2012. The book you are holding aims to treat the issue in both its historical and legal aspects, and to form an overview of the subjugation of rights that has been continuing for decades, by producing a comprehensive inventory of the seized immovable assets of Armenian foundations in Istanbul, presenting statistical analyses, and revealing the human-social aspects of the problem. In this way, the target of the project is to make it clear to the society of Turkey that the problem is not only about a 'demand for properties' but an issue of the sustainability of cultural existence; and to contribute towards the establishment of democratic rights in this country.
It was not possible, within the scope of this project, to take up the problem in a manner that would include Turkey as a whole, and all the minority communities in the country. As is well known, the problem in question is neither restricted to Istanbul, nor to Armenians. It is clear that projects covering the entire geographical span of Turkey and all its minority groups are necessary to see the full picture. However, it would not be a mistake to say that the results of this work more or less reflect the circumstances all the minority communities in Turkey face.
Community foundations have managed to sustain their existence from the Ottoman period to the present day, and they carry great importance in perpetuating the activities of churches, synagogues, schools and hospitals; all institutions that have been established to meet the religious, cultural and social needs of non-Muslim communities. The state does not provide any support to these foundations, and the only income of their hayrats [charitable properties such as schools, churches, cemeteries] is the revenue generated by the akars [real estate properties generating income] they own. Because of problems that have been encountered for years, and properties that have been lost, or cannot be used, almost all foundations today continue their activities with budget deficits. These deficits are met with donations minority communities try to collect from their own members. Contrary to popular belief, minority foundations are not wealthy in terms of their immovable assets. There are Armenian foundations that have no immovable assets. It has become obligatory for such foundations, often found in neighbourhoods where the Armenian population is low, or has declined over time, to be supported by other foundations in order to survive. Yet it should not be forgotten that it is only after a legal amendment implemented in 2008 that one foundation has been allowed to help another.
The Armenian community, because of the painful experiences of the past, and discriminatory policies, a number of which continue today, and with the fear of losing the remaining little it has managed to hold on to, has grown increasingly silent, and reluctant to speak about the problems it has faced. We believe that in presenting the scale of the ownership problem faced by Armenian foundations, which bear great importance in sustaining the cultural and social existence of the Armenian community, we will not only encourage Armenians of Turkey to discuss their problems as citizens and demand their rights, but will also create the opportunity for a sensitivity to develop in public opinion, which is lacking in an adequate level of information on the topic.
Our departure point for the research was the archives of Hrant Dink, Agos, Advocate Diran Bakar and Armenian foundations. Thousands of documents from these archives have now been converted to a digital medium. With previous research work, historical maps and books, and first and foremost the work of the Communal Estate Commission that was formed within the body of the Istanbul Armenian Patriarchate in 2001, we have prepared a database that researchers on the topic can consult. This database formed the basis of the inventory section of the book.
One of the fundamental prerequisites for demanding rights is the existence of information. It is impossible to carry out a healthy process of demanding rights without possessing exact and precise knowledge about the ongoing problem. We encountered various challenges during our work in accessing information. Some questions we asked within the scope of the Law on the Knowledge Acquisition Right were only partially answered; while in the case of some others, it was impossible to get any answer at all. It would therefore be wrong to suggest that, at this point in time, state archives are freely available for scrutiny by those who would like to carry out research in this field. This prohibitive stance alone reveals that public institutions still view the subject from a 'state security' perspective.
On the other hand, only some of the foundation administrations whose ownership problems we wanted to highlight allowed us to access their archives. Whether they had experienced ownership problems or not, some administrators we contacted refused to share information regarding any of their immovable assets. This is no doubt closely associated with the way information can gradually turn into an instrument of power, and administrators may, as memory of their responsibilities grows dim, shun their accountability towards their community.
During the last century, the lack of a healthy exchange of information between consecutive foundation administrations has also resulted in a loss of information. One of the most frequently encountered situations was the current foundation administrations not having records of even the most basic address information for the foundation's immovable assets seized in previous years. The strong conviction that seized properties would not be retrieved through legal recourse, rendered it unnecessary in the eyes of foundation administrators to retain and relay information of such immovable assets. Another factor that prevented the flow of information between foundation administrations was the refusal of outgoing administrations to share the information they possessed when a rival administrative council was elected. Lack of care shown to archiving, documents being lent out to third parties without copies being made and destruction of archives in fires are further reasons for the loss of information on immovable assets. Nonetheless, this work that has been produced by combining the data we accumulated from various sources represents the most detailed account possible under current conditions of the property ownership status of Armenian foundations in Istanbul. We hope that the picture presented here will contribute to the aforementioned flow of information and an increase in transparency in society in Turkey.
In the first part of the book we have tried to describe the significance of minority foundations in the daily life of non-Muslims, their history and discussions over their legal personality, and also the various steps the state has taken in parallel to political developments, with references to model legal decisions and implementations. We have also discussed the recent improvements made as part of the accession process to the European Union and shortcomings that remain.
As seen in the legal basis of many court decisions, there have often been attempts to legitimize discriminatory policies aimed at foundation properties in Turkey by making reference to the condition of Muslims in Greece and the reciprocity principle. Within the scope of our project, we visited representatives of Muslim foundations and non-governmental organizations in Western Thrace; the information we gathered at these meetings has been included under a separate heading. This section clearly reveals that, just like the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey, the Muslim minorities in Greece are perceived as 'aliens' that represent a potential internal security threat to the country they are citizens of. Gaining information regarding the problems experienced by Muslim foundations in Western Thrace will not only help us understand the problems of minority foundations in our country, but also create opportunities for the minorities of Turkey and Western Thrace, who suffer similar victimizations yet at the same time are used by nationalist ideologies on both sides as bargaining chips against each other, to collaborate and join together in solidarty in their struggle for human rights.
In the second section we carried out in-depth examinations of five cases of immovable asset seizure. These are the complete eradication of the Kalfayan institutions from the Halıcıoğlu Neighbourhood during the construction process of the Bosphorus Bridge; the story of the Bomonti Mıhitaryan Primary School whic continues to provide education from the building they had once purchased, and currently occupy as leaseholders; the process of claiming back a building on İstiklal Street as an example of the kind of legal struggle rarely encountered in the Armenian community; the Kasımpaşa Surp Hagop Church Foundation that was declared defunct and fully placed under the management of the Directorate General of Foundations; and the story of the Andonyan Monastery in Ortaköy that has been abandoned to its fate. We also included the story of the seizure of the Tuzla Children's Camp, the first example that springs to everyone's mind in Turkey when the ownership problem of Armenian foundations is mentioned.
In the third and final section of the book we present the brief histories of a total of 53 foundations of the Apostolic, Catholic and Protestant Armenian communities in Istanbul and detailed information and statistics about the seized properties belonging to them that we have managed to identify. In this section, the hayrats [charitable properties such as schools, churches, cemeteries etc.] and akars [real estate properties generating income] of the foundations have also been shown on maps prepared on a borough, and in some instances, neighbourhood basis.
Although it does contain the most comprehensive study and inventory at present on the property ownership problem encountered by Armenian foundations in Istanbul, it is not possible to claim that this book is the final word on the topic. The picture will come into clearer focus as the archives are opened and further information is shared. In addition, the lawsuits filed by foundations for the return of many immovable assets mentioned here are in progress; therefore, the ownership status of these immovable assets is constantly changing. Within the scope of the decree law no.651 that came into effect in August 2011, a time when our research on the project was ongoing, minority foundations have applied for the return of their seized immovable assets. A number of applications have not been finalized as of September 2012. The website www.istanbularmenianfoundations.org will be regularly updated in line with developments. At this site, all properties belonging to Armenian foundations in Istanbul in relation to which ownership problems have been encountered will be presented on a map, complete with their stories and solid facts. It will not be possible to lay this matter to rest as long as the ownership problems of minority foundations are not solved completely, the legal struggles of foundations continues, and the mindset against non-Muslims does not change. Therefore, this work can be viewed as a step along this path.
Though they are still wanting, in recent times the state has taken some steps towards the solution of the ownership problems of minority foundations, and as a result of this, a number of seized immovable assets have been returned to foundations, and a further number are expected to be returned in the near future. New responsibilities await the Armenian community during this process. The protection and correct use of the immovable assets by administrators; the fulfilment of the religious, social and cultural needs of all foundations, and thus the entire Armenian community through inter-foundational coordination; the development of social projects by pursuing the benefit of all residents in the neighbourhoods where the foundations are located; the establishment of democratic and independent supervision mechanisms that will audit foundation administrations; and the operation of foundations as transparent and accountable institutions with the vision of a non-governmental institution, will also mean that these institutions will function in accordance with the true purpose of a 'foundation' and thus, the sustainability of Armenian culture and life in Turkey will have found strong reassurance.
In conclusion, the issue is not only an issue of returning properties; it is an issue of understanding this aspect of our history and transmitting this understanding to future generations. As long as it fails to face up to the mindset that alienates the ancient peoples of this country and refuses to see them as equal citizens, Turkey's efforts towards democratization will fall short. With the hope and wish that this work will contribute to this facing of the facts, and to transformation...