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In an unexpected move, the Turkish government is releasing hundreds of properties seized 75 years ago from Jews as well as Christians in Turkey’s Greek, Armenian and Syriac communities.

“The times when citizens in our country were oppressed for their beliefs, their ethnic heritage, or the way they dressed —  is over,” proclaimed Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at an inter-faith iftar (breaking the fast) celebration Sunday as the Muslim month of Ramadan drew to a close.

Acknowledging past injustices inflicted on those of different faith groups, Erdogan, who is Muslim, vowed to Christian and Jewish leaders representing 161 minority foundations, “Those days are over. In our country, no citizen is superior to another.”

Seated next to the prime minister at the dinner, Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church told the press afterwards that the new decree represented “the restoration of an injustice.”

In a deliberate clarification the next day, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu emphasized that the government’s formal decision was “not a gesture toward minorities, but the return of the rights of legally equal citizens.”

Minorities must apply within the next 12 months to the government’s General Foundations Board to recover property in question — which include schools, churches, cemeteries, stores, hospitals, orphanages, houses, apartment buildings and factories seized in 1936.

The decree overturns a 1974 ruling that had prohibited non-Muslim communities from acquiring new property.

The new decree states that owners of properties sold by the state to third parties will be reimbursed at market value. According to Radikal newspaper, the Ministry of Finance will determine the amount of compensation for property that had been sold to third parties, who will not be required to relinquish these lands or buildings back to their original owners.

The move came as Turkey continues to seek full membership in the European Union. The European Court of Human Rights had slapped heavy fines on Turkey in recent years for failing to return these seized properties to their Christian and Jewish owners.

Although the ECHR has declared the expropriations a violation of both local property rights and international law, Turkish nationalists had for decades blocked any legal changes.

In a statement on July 13, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule cited a number of legislative issues on religious freedom that Turkey had not yet implemented before it could be brought into the European Union, including restrictions on the training of non-Muslim clergy, compulsory Islamic education, prohibitions on missionary activity, and a requirement that religious affiliation must be stated on Turkish identity cards.

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