Solving the question of religious minorities could help Turkey and Greece
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras paid an official visit to Turkey this week and held talks with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In the press conference after the meeting, each leader underlined the issues that he considered important. No important breakthrough came out of the meeting, but the encounter has the merit of keeping the channels of communications open and active.
Tsipras’s visit to the Greek Orthodox Seminary on the island of Halki (Heybeliada) off Istanbul attracted as much attention as the summit itself as it was the first time a Greek prime minister had visited this important institution of theological learning in more than 80 years.
The school was inaugurated in 1844, but closed down in 1971 when Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that private colleges operating in the field of military or religious education had to be affiliated with a state-run university. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Istanbul did not accept this subordination, so the seminary has remained closed ever since.
There has been strong pressure on the Turkish government from foreign countries to re-open the seminary ever since, especially from the United States. In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution inviting Turkey to re-open the seminary. The EU made reopening the seminary part of accession negotiations.
U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also raised the issue during visits to Turkey. Occasionally, there were encouraging promises by political figures in Turkey, but they did not come to fruition.
Tsipras told the press conference that Erdoğan had told him that no agreement would be signed during the summit. It is unclear whether this was a complaint or an expectation, but Erdoğan used this remark as an opportunity to voice what he had in mind for the next summit meeting. He said he hoped progress might be made on the question of the rights of the ethnic Turks of northern Greece.
Another issue that was indirectly touched upon during the press conference was the international status of Istanbul Patriarchate. This question caused a heated debate in 1924 at the Lausanne Peace Conference between Turkey and the World War One Allied Powers. Turkey was unwilling to host the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, but had to accept keeping it on its territory on condition it should become a national institution of Turkey. As a result, Ankara refuses to recognise the ecumenical (worldwide) character of the Istanbul Patriarchate and considers it a national institution of Turkey. Therefore, it says members of this national institution be Turkish citizens.
Erdoğan said in the press conference that he had asked Greece to send the names of the designate-members of the Holy Synod, which is an assembly that conducts the affairs of the Patriarchate, so that Turkey could extend citizenship to them. Turkey thus demonstrated its good will.
The closure of the seminary is also indirectly linked to the question of the rights of the ethnic Turkish community in western Thrace (northern Greece) and the construction of a mosque in Athens.
The two leaders decided to hold their next meeting in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. There is more than one reason for choosing this city as a venue. The two countries envisage starting regular cruise services between Izmir and Thessaloniki and linking Istanbul and Thessaloniki by rail.
The Lausanne Peace Treaty established a balance between the religious rights of ethnic Turks in western Thrace and those of the Greek Orthodox in Istanbul. While Ankara allows the Greek Orthodox in Istanbul to elect their religious leaders, Athens refuses to recognise the mufti elected by the ethnic Turkish community and instead appoints the mufti. In 1990, the elected mufti of Xanthi, Mehmet Emin Aga, was arrested and put in jail on the grounds of usurping the title of the appointed mufti.
If there were progress on this complicated issue in the next summit, it would definitely have positive repercussions on so many other issues between these two NATO allies.