July 8, 2014

Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul sues for fraud

Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul sues for fraud -

On July 1, the 16th Istanbul Heavy Penal Court began hearing what is possibly one of the most intriguing and bizarre fraud cases in Turkey’s judicial history.

The plaintiff in the case is Archbishop Aram Atesyan, the acting Armenian patriarch. In an earlier article for Al-Monitor, I had explained how Atesyan took over the post when Patriarch Mesrob II fell seriously ill.

At the hearing, Atesyan recounted how, during last year’s holy month of Ramadan, he met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a dinner breaking a fast and discussed with him the issue of the return of the Sanasaryan Han, a historical commercial building in Istanbul that was originally a property of the Armenian Patriarchate but is now held by the Directorate General of Foundations (VGM). A few days later, a man who introduced himself as an inspector in charge of the national estate visited the patriarchate. He asked Atesyan to sign papers with the Prime Ministry’s letterhead, saying that the Sanasaryan Han would be returned to the patriarchate. The man then requested a “gift” and received 6,000 Turkish lira (about $2,800) before vanishing in thin air. Soon, Atesyan realized they were conned.

The Sanasaryan Han is only one of many Armenian properties the VGM seized in the 1970s following an Appeals Court ruling that invalidated certain legal transactions by non-Muslim community foundations. Given its size and central location in Istanbul, this building is perhaps the one with the highest value. The first round in a legal battle over the building’s ownership drew to a close on July 3, with the patriarchate losing. It is hard to predict how the appeal process will end.

Here is how Atesyan recounted this incredible incident to the bilingual Armenian-Turkish weekly Agos: “The person came with papers bearing the Prime Ministry’s letterhead. He said the Sanasaryan Han would be returned to us on the prime minister’s orders, adding that the issue was kept secret for the moment. Since I had taken up the issue with the prime minister only a few days earlier, I believed him. We were extremely happy. Then he asked for 6,000 Turkish lira, and the patriarchate’s accountant paid him the sum. Later on, when lawyers studied the paper [he gave us], they concluded that the legal provision it referred to could not be associated with property return. Then we contacted the prime minister’s office. The Prime Ministry Inspection Board investigated the issue. Security camera footage and telephone records had been erased in a way we fail to understand. The patriarchate’s camera footage of the day of the incident is missing. We were able to find the telephone number from which the person called us, and that’s how they caught him. He conned not only us but the Prime Ministry, too.”

Stressing that only several people knew of his discussion with Erdogan, Atesyan further told Agos: “We discussed the Sanasaryan Han issue at the fast-breaking dinner hosted by [leaders of non-Muslim] communities. We talked about our problems. The building at the time was in the process of being rented. [Erdogan] said they would review the related legislation and act accordingly. He also said they might suspend the renting process until the review was completed. So, when the incident happened, we thought that our demands had been met and believed that person. But soon, the truth of the matter became clear.”

Atesyan’s lawyer maintained that the issue is not as simple as it seems to be, stressing that the patriarchate’s security camera footage that day had been erased, and asked the court to expand the probe. It emerged at the hearing that the suspect, Kemal T. N., had a long criminal record involving nine other offenses.

What makes this fraud case extraordinary is not only the patriarchate being the victim. Some “technical details” such as the deletion of the patriarchate’s security camera footage and the swindler being aware of a discussion held exclusively between Atesyan and Erdogan raise suspicion that other people could be involved. Two options come to mind: either someone from the patriarchate or the Turkish intelligence services must have helped the swindler. Naturally, without any concrete evidence, such suggestions remain mere speculation. Hopefully, the court case will shed light also on the “suspicious” aspects of the incident.

Yet, looking at the affair from another perspective, one can make observations also on the conditions and psychology of minorities in Turkey today.

In the background of the patriarchate’s defrauding, there lies the merciless policy of dispossession that the Turkish state pursued against minorities for decades. In 1974, the Appeals Court issued a controversial ruling under which the property acquisition of minority foundations became highly problematic. As a result, the VGM took possession of thousands of properties owned by the Greek, Jewish and Armenian communities.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) put an end to that long-standing policy and began to return the properties to their original non-Muslim owners. The return process, however, was not as smooth as desired. Many properties that belong to non-Muslims such as the Sanasaryan Han remain in the hands of state institutions. The patriarchate’s failure to get the building back in the first phase of the court case it initiated shows that reclaiming the property will be an uphill battle.

Atesyan’s move to take up the issue with the prime minister, his easy deception by a person who visited him right after that meeting and his willingness to pay that person a bribe under the guise of a “gift” are all illustrations of how vulnerable Turkey’s minorities feel.

Hopefully, the court case will shed light on how the plan was carried out and its technical details. With the smartness and intuition typical to con men, the suspect appears to have hatched and accomplished his plan knowing perfectly well how vulnerable minorities feel in Turkey, and how hopelessly desperate they are to reclaim their usurped properties. The plot has been built on the tragic historical and sociological background that haunts Turkey’s minorities today.

Al Monitor

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