The Syriac Church in Istanbul won a lawsuit it filed for the return of seized property in Istanbul in another case marking the improvement of minority rights in Turkey.
Beyoğlu Kadim Meryemana Church was seeking the return of a plot currently occupied by Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in Istanbul's upscale Şişli neighborhood. The plot, where the university's headquarters was built, was originally donated to the church in 1956 by a follower in their will. However, Turkey's Treasury filed a lawsuit in 1970 for the annulment of the will and the court cancelled the ownership of the church based on a 1936 law that blocks donations of real estate to churches after 1936.
The plot was transferred to the now-defunct TEKEL, a state-run cigarette and alcoholic beverage maker and then to Mimar Sinan University in 2000.
Agos newspaper reported that the church's foundation applied to the General Directorate of Foundations – the state authority overseeing the affairs of religious foundations – for a return of the property and filed a lawsuit when the directorate denied the return. The court ruled in favor of the Syriac Church and the directorate will now decide on whether to hand over the plot to the church after a legal appeal process is concluded. It is expected that the church will regain ownership as there has been a recent surge in the return of properties seized from minorities. The newspaper reported that the church will ask for payment of the plot's value instead of acquiring ownership.
There are 25,000 Syriac Christians in Turkey, 18,000 of whom live in Istanbul. The Syriac community recently made the headlines for being the first to build a church in the Republican era after the government permitted plans for the place of worship in Istanbul's Yeşilköy.
Turkey's non-Muslim minorities have long been treated as second-class citizens and deprived of their rights. In 2013, the government announced a "democratization package" that included a pledge to return to their rightful owners, properties that were forcibly seized from minorities in the early years of the Republic of Turkey.