Religious leaders of Greek and Armenian communities in Istanbul lauded a major shift in communities' relations with the state under the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party after decades of suppression. Greek Orthodox patriarch, acting head of Armenian patriarchate and representatives of other minorities joined Şeref Malkoç, Turkey's chief ombudsman, for a meeting on problems the communities faced.
"Unlike the past, we can easily contact with the representatives of the state, the government and convey them our problems. This was not the case before, when the minorities were afraid of openly expressing their problems," Patriarch Bartholomew I of Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate said at the meeting in Istanbul. The patriarch is the spiritual leader of a number of Orthodox churches both in Turkey and other countries and an influential figure among ethnic, religious minorities in Turkey. He went on to speak about "a joint problem" of communities, "that is, lack of an option to elect new board members for foundations -which run places of worships-. We cannot hold elections," he said.
Bartholomew also said they expected permission to reopen Halki seminary that once trained priests for the Greek population. 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.
Aram Ateşyan, acting patriarch of Armenian Patriarchate, said his community was deprived of many rights, "until the AK Party came to power." "Mr. President and his party made us smile," he said, referring to mass return of properties confiscated in the past from Armenian, Greek and other minorities.