Laki Vingas, a Turkish citizen of Greek descent, is the first non-Muslim member of the General Directorate of Foundations -- an institution attached to the Prime Minister's Office -- where he represents 165 minority foundations. In an exclusive interview with SES Türkiye, he assesses relations between the state and non-Muslim communities in Turkey, arguing it is a "natural process" for dialogue to be moving in a positive direction.
Vingas says that in the past, people had difficulty expressing their demands in a democratic way, but now both the government and society are more open to dialogue.
"If our main strategy is based on a happier and more equal future in Turkey for all, we will have to pass through some processes which cannot be predicted beforehand. But, during this democratisation process, we should respect each other; we should behave in a proactive manner and we should claim our rights on a civil platform," he said.
However, Vingas also points out that "we, as minority communities in Turkey, should establish an internal, participatory democracy among ourselves," in order for the democratic reforms to carry any meaning.
Frango Karaoglan, a well-known translator belonging to the Greek community in Istanbul, concurs with Vingas. "If democracy is composed by a number of principles, we should also adapt those democratic norms for ourselves in an efficient manner," she told SES Türkiye, adding that there is no a magic recipe for that.
"The elections of the board in each foundation should be conducted on the basis of an internal regulation, taking into consideration the participation of all voters. All internal election processes should be carried out in a transparent, responsible and accountable manner. Any initiative or decision made within the minority community should not open the way for questions like 'who will benefit from this?', 'whose personal profit will be damaged by this?'"
The situation of minorities in Turkey has improved in recent years with the enactment of a number of legislative amendments. A landmark decree law approved by parliament last August opened the way for minority foundations -- which had their property expropriated -- to lodge official appeals for either the return of the property or compensation.
"This law also paved the way for a change in our behaviours [as minority groups]. We were used to adopting a very negative and hopeless identity structure regarding this issue. Now, we have to break this identity construction and motivate minorities to think in positive terms," Vingas said.
There are an estimated 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 Jews, 3,500 Greek Orthodox Christians, and 20,000 Assyriacs in Turkey. Each community owns foundations and had property seized in the past, including hospitals, schools, places of worship and cemeteries.
"To make up for past injustices some steps need to be taken," Vingas said, adding that this would help ensure peace within the souls of all Turkish citizens.
Vingas considers it his duty to act as a bridge between state authorities and non-Muslim foundations, and also to develop relations between non-Muslim communities.
Since late last year, a parliamentary Constitutional Reconciliation Committee has included the views of minority groups in preparing for a new civilian constitution. Vingas says the common denominator of minority groups is the demand for equal citizenship, the revision of school textbooks to remove racist elements, the adoption of preventive measures against hate speech and the reinforcement of religious freedom.
"I have two main expectations from the new constitution: First of all, I want to be accepted and treated as equal citizens in real terms and, then, I want to claim my future in my homeland," Vingas said.
He says there has been a considerable change in the behaviour of the bureaucracy in Ankara, which now tries to empathise with minorities. Top-level government officials can easily gather with non-Muslim community representatives in meetings, where "there is an understanding and volition that's open to dialogue."
"We have been witnessing a more open atmosphere where officials in Ankara are trying to empathise with the minority groups and their psychology," he said.
CHP deputy and Constitutional Reconciliation Committee member Rıza Turmen agrees. "Both CHP and the Constitution Conciliation Commission opt for a stance embracing all minorities regardless of their religions. As a party wide-open to pluralism, we pay attention to the qualifications of people, not to their ethnicities," the former judge at the European Court of Human Rights told SES Türkiye.
Turmen emphasised that the commission heard from all religious communities in Turkey before initiating its drafting process. "This constitution will symbolise the changed perception towards minorities and [represents] a good step forward in empathising with their problems by providing them specific guarantees," he added.
Regarding the Greek Orthodox seminary on the island of Heybeliada (Halki), which closed in 1971, Vingas said he is optimistic it will open soon, though did not suggest a specific date. The seminary's closure remains an obstacle to the freedom of religion and the training of Orthodox clergy in Turkey.
For Vingas, Turkey's EU candidacy and the harmonisation process is an efficient anchor to improve the lives of non-Muslim communities in Turkey. "Not only for minority groups but for the greater public, the EU is a source of confidence for the transparency process in Turkey," he said.
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