Explained: Leasing Endowment Properties
Endowments properties, particularly those located in opposition-held territory, are today the centre of much discussion about the most appropriate way to invest in them or build housing projects in their place.
Some endowment properties are private agricultural lands allocated by their owners as being for charitable (“for the sake of God”), i.e. for public benefit. An endowment property is a property that the owner willingly loses possession of in order to transfer its benefits to the public. Ownership of such property may not be transferred to anyone. Endowment properties have a special nature, in that they are neither state-owned nor privately owned. Most of these properties were originally owned by individuals who donated them.
Leasing and investing in endowment properties
Leasing endowment properties is an acknowledged practice in Islamic jurisprudence. It is also oftentimes a point of dispute between those who authorise leasing such properties long term and those who do not. Syrian laws permit leasing endowment properties for long term so long as there is a greater benefit to the endowment funds and to society. This is consistent with jurisprudence that says it is possible to invest endowment properties to obtain a greater profit that can contribute to social endowment goals. This principle can be seen in the granting of investment rights and right of usufruct to others, in exchange for rental payments to the Ministry of Religious Endowments, while the property remains under endowment ownership.
Before 2011, the Ministry of Religious Endowments used public auctions to lease endowment properties, whether those properties were agricultural lands, residential units, or commercial shops. Resulting tenants then paid a sum of money called a “gift” to the Endowments Directorate, alongside a symbolic annual rent. The lease has a fixed term, but can be renewed. The provisions on leasing that are mentioned within the Civil Code (issued in 1949) apply to these properties as well on the condition that they be documented by the Ministry of Religious Endowments and its directorates.
After 2011, endowment properties were subject to many violations, including tenants’ refusal to pay rent or seizure of endowment land for the purpose of illegal construction. Many such violations occurred in opposition-held areas, especially in rural Aleppo governorate amid an urgent need for housing and other resources for displaced people. Since 2018, opposition-run local councils and endowment offices have worked to reorganise and manage endowment properties, whether by removing those who seized such properties, re-appraising rental prices, or even investing them in projects that yield a greater benefit to endowments and to the public.
The ‘right of two leases’
Article 1004 and subsequent articles of the Civil Code expanded endowment leasing rights by giving endowments directorates the right to take greater advantage of such properties for long rental periods, through what is known as “the right of two leases.” Under this right, an individual may permanently acquire the right to use and exploit an endowment property in exchange for a payment lower than the actual value of the property, in addition to a symbolic annual rent. This individual may then use the property, benefit from it, or even pass it along to others. The right of usufruct may also be passed down to heirs, though the property must remain categorised as an endowment.
Under the right of two leases, the owners is considered the original in rem rights holder for the property, as recorded in the property’s Land Registry page in accordance with Article 4 of Decree No. 189 of 1926, which concerns the executive regulations of the Land Registry Law.