Acting Armenian patriarch hails Turkey's efforts to 'make minorities smile'

A man lights a candle outside Vorots Vorodman, a restored Armenian church in Istanbul. In the past decade, the state sped up restoration of derelict churches.

Turkey's efforts in the past decade to restore the rights of minorities such as Armenians and Greeks are appreciated by those communities, Aram Ateşyan, the acting Armenian patriarch has said. In an interview with state-run Anadolu Agency (AA), Ateşyan said they felt they "really existed" after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power.

"We owe it to the party and President [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan]. Indeed, the government put a smile on the faces of minority members," Ateşyan said. A controversial wealth tax that was imposed in 1942 that targeted rich non-Muslims, a pogrom against the local Greek population in 1955 and the deportation of non-Muslim Turkish citizens in 1964, added to "a fear of the state" among non-Muslim minorities.

The democratization package announced by the ruling AK Party government seeks to change the state's view on minorities, restoring their rights through new bills.

Then-prime minister and current president, Erdoğan announced in 2011 that the hundreds of properties that were confiscated from minorities over the years would be returned and compensation would be paid for the properties that were later sold to third parties.

Although no comprehensive laws exist to restore property rights, Turkish courts are gradually returning properties to minorities who prove ownership.

Ateşyan was visiting his birthplace of Silvan, a southeastern town in Diyarbakır province where Armenian churches were damaged in a campaign of terrorism by the PKK with security forces.

He said Armenians have gone through difficult times in the past decades.

"People were afraid of expressing their faith openly. Thousands of properties belonging to Armenian, Jewish and Bulgarian foundations were seized. It was a dream for a community representative to meet a prime minister, let alone a president," Ateşyan said, adding that all that changed in 2002.

Under Erdoğan's tenure as prime minister and later president, government officials and the president held multiple meetings with representatives from minority groups and hosted them at the Presidential Palace in a bid to hear their complaints.

"We are given our identity again, at least some properties were returned to us. Our foundations recovered from losses after the return of properties," he said.

Ateşyan also hailed a bureaucratic reform for a change in IDs in terms of religious affiliation.

"You had to file a lawsuit before to change your religion on IDs, but now you can easily change it by applying to the local civil register," he said.

In other "good news," Ateşyan said communities are now able to repair their churches, schools, hospitals and cemeteries easily thanks to decreased red tape.

"Not all problems are solved, but many were indeed resolved. We smile again," he said.

Ateşyan said minority communities still have expectations from the state, including the return of more properties seized by the state and a change in status of foundations and the main source of revenues to run places of worship.

Authorities are currently working on a set of regulations to allow independent elections at minority-run foundations. It will give broader freedom to communities that are mostly concentrated in Istanbul after decades of discriminatory policies and tight control by the state.

The election issue is a matter overshadowing democratic rights for minorities. Although recognized minority groups are free to elect their own foundation members, they are still subject to inspection by the state and need the approval of authorities.

During the late Ottoman period and in the early years of the Republic, foundations belonging to non-Muslim minorities were able to hold their own elections, but a set of changes in later years hindered the election process.

In 2013, Turkey suspended regulations on elections to create a new one with cooperation between minority representatives and the state. The move was praised for cooperation with minorities, something rare in the history of the Republic.

The acting patriarch also criticized the PKK terrorist attacks that damaged places of worship two years ago in Diyarbakır.

"It is inhumane to attack a place where people gather to say the name of God. These places are also treasures for this country. Our ancestors built them with difficulty," he said, praising the restoration and repair work on Diyarbakır churches.