Barçın Yinanç - Hürriyet Daily News / Istanbul, July 13 () - Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities suffer from many problems, but the most important one is demographic, according to a prominent representative of minority communities.
“The election of four non-Muslim deputies to parliament will contribute to finding a solution for their problems,” said Laki Vingas, the first non-Muslim member of the Foundations Assembly, created during the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
What would you say about the AKP’s 13-year-old minority policies?
The first years of AKP rule were not that fruitful. We continued to feel the pressure of the past 80 years upon us until 2008. In the first years, the AKP was very prudent and improving minority rights was neither in its rhetoric nor among its views when it came to power in 2002.
In time, thanks to the accession talks with the European Union together with the initiative of the EU secretariat general, as well as the efforts of the Foreign Ministry, an improvement process has become a policy stance. The real turning point was 2008, when the law on foundations was endorsed. And then the Gezi incidents were another turning point.
But the perception is that the AKP has been the political party with the best record on minority issues, even from the beginning of its governance.
There has been many firsts with the AKP. A lot of progress has been registered but if you scrape away the cosmetic from some of the people and groups, in their internal world we still remain foreigners or that these are not our lands, or that we don’t like this country as much as they do.
What were the main firsts you mentioned?
Following the first law on foundations in 2008, I for instance became the first non-Muslim member of the newly established Foundation Assembly. A new law was enacted in 2011 for the return of confiscated properties. Unfortunately, this process is unfinished.
Second: the education issue. For the first time our schools received financial assistance. For the first time a school was opened in Gökçeada (an island in the province of Çanakkale); for the first time an Assyrian preschool was opened. And lately the race code was cancelled.
Can you explain that?
We realized during the applications made to minority schools that non-Muslim minority members were being coded. The Rums’ code was one, Armenians two, etc. This practice ended after huge reactions and intensive efforts.
After the issue of the return of properties and education, I would name increased visibility among the firsts. This is not solely due to the AKP’s rule; this is something that came around with certain dynamics. We gained some self-confidence. We are much more self-confident, especially in our contacts with the state.
After 80 painful years, it makes us happy to see its all being realized. But it’s not enough. These developments will not carry us into the future.
You had also mentioned the Gezi incidents as a turning point. Can you elaborate on that?
The system got blocked after Gezi. This is not just about minorities, but when there were so many serious developments we could not continue with fast speed. We thought we would close the issue of properties by 2014, but the climate did not allow for that.
We have a serious problem about the election decree for foundations. This is the biggest black hole of this period. Our right to elect and be elected has been taken from us. In 2012, the election decree for foundations was canceled in order to prepare a new and better one. Yet, as the new one has not been endorsed, we are deprived of our basic right. Today we are still dealing with sanctions.
You see this as a sanction?
Yes. If all the efforts remain without a result, I see this as a right violation. You block elections in a system which covers all properties, hospitals, houses of worships, incomes; you block transparency, accountability. There is no legal entity other than ours in Turkey, which the state interferes with in its internal affairs.
Do you mean to say that by not renewing the election decree, the state wants to maintain its ability to interfere with the activities of foundations?
In other words, the AKP continues the 80-year-old punishment sanction mentality?
This is exactly how I might interpret it. This is a serious wound and I don’t understand how it cannot be solved. We were never told why it is not being solved. We are facing the difficulty of being perceived as equal citizens.
How to you evaluate the fact that there are four members in parliament from non-Muslim minorities?
It is very exciting. All of them entered parliament as active members of our communities. I am sure they will pursue our problems and needs. When our contacts with Ankara increased it was only natural for an increased presence (in parliament). Both Turkish politics and communities are changing. But there are still a lot to do. We are communities in a coma, especially as far as demographics are concerned. We are barely 100,000 in a country of 79 million.
Will their presence be symbolic in parliament? Do you think they can contribute to the solution of the problems of minorities?
I don’t think they went there to have a symbolic presence. They went there to provide a serious contribution. It is very important to voice our problems from the parliamentary platform. I have no doubt that they will contribute a lot and strengthen us.
What is the solution to the problem of demographics?
The state can provide some facilitation to those willing to come and settle. We are hosting 2 million Syrians. In the case of the Greek minority for instance, some facilitation could be provided to 10,000 Rums from Greece. One-third of Greece is the grandchildren of those who went to Greece after the population exchange. They are familiar with these lands. They are all well-educated; they can contribute to the Turkish economy. What if Turkey were to become a center of attraction?
If we try to carry the past with us, then we have no energy left for new initiatives. There is good will in every institution we get in touch with. But we still cannot make progress. The problem is that we have no patience left for another decade or two.
It has also been said that the concerns of non-Muslim minorities have intensified and that the tendency among members of the Jewish community to leave Turkey has been increasing.
It is true that the Jewish community had serious concerns about a year, a year and a half ago.
This must also be related to the tension between Turkey and Israel, which shows that minority issues are not immune from relations with third countries.
Unfortunately the reciprocity approach continues. It is less than before but it is still there.
Isn’t there an additional concern about the AKP showing its Islamic colors more openly?
Perhaps there was a more freedom-based approach in the past and there is more emphasis on religious themes due to the international environment. Indeed there is a concern there. We have two identities; one is citizenship. The other is our cultural identity. Radical Islamist threats create concern on both accounts.