Unable to elect new leaders, Turkey’s non-Muslims face cultural erosion

Turkey’s non-Muslim foundations have been legally unable to elect new board members for six years because the government has refrained from putting new regulations in place. The result is that many crucial board seats have been left unfilled, eroding foundations’ leadership and impact, and undermining progress for Turkey’s minority communities, reported Forum 18, an Oslo-based Christian news service.

“The damage done by not being able to hold elections is enormous,” said Moris Levi, deputy leader of Turkey’s Jewish community and community foundations’ representative to the government's Directorate-General of Foundations (VGM). "Very soon it will be impossible for these institutions to carry on with so few board members.”

Turkey’s non-Muslim communities, including Armenians, Greeks, Syriac Orthodox, and Jews, representing some 2 percent of the population (around 1.5 million people), are protected under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, following the population exchange of Greeks to their homeland and Turks to their newly created Republic. 

Still, over the years, Turkey’s government has subjected these communities to difficulties, including confiscating property, removing board members and obstructing board elections, according to Forum 18. This is where the foundations come in, helping non-Muslim communities navigate life in a predominantly Muslim state.

“Despite their limitations, the community foundations are vital for community life as they are the only legal institutions which may support non-Muslim minority institutions and communities,” said Forum 18.

Under Ottoman-era regulations, boards should be elected to administer the affairs of these communities and the foundations looking after them, according to Forum 18. These foundations advanced after a 2008 update to their regulations. But in 2013 the relevant law was allowed to expire.

In 2015 the foundations met then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and presented a draft regulation proposal. The government hinted at adopting a new law, but no legislation has since appeared, said Forum 18.

The main hurdle seems to be a lack of desire on the part of Turkey’s government, overseen by the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). “We have made our preparations and are waiting for the political will to implement it,” VGM General Director Adnan Ertem told Agos last year, according to Forum 18.

Now all their progress is being erased as the foundations face a difficult choice: urge the government to implement regulations and leave board seats unfilled for a possibly extended period; take legal action that might compel the government to act, but could also lead to repercussions; or hold potentially illegal board elections, opening themselves up to prosecution.

Meanwhile, death, retirement, emigration, ill health, and end of term commitments have significantly reduced the number of board members, imposing extra work on those that remain, according to Forum 18.

Levi, the Jewish leader and foundations’ representative, said some foundations have only two or three remaining board members.  

"We are facing the risk of losing a whole generation,” he told Forum 18. “If we cannot ensure that young, enthusiastic, visionary new board members who move with the times are in charge, we may be responsible for damaging our centuries-old cultural heritage.”