Ankara, Turkey – Turkish Minority of Western Thrace and the Turkish Community in the Dodecanese.
The Turkish Minority of Western Thrace
The Turkish Muslim population living in Greece (with the exception of the Turkish population in Western Thrace) and the Greek Orthodox population living in Turkey (with the exception of those in Istanbul, Gökçeada and Bozcaada) were subject to a population exchange, in line with the relevant agreements to which Turkey and Greece are parties. Currently, about 150 thousand ethnic Turks live in Western Thrace, Greece. This population constitutes the Turkish Minority of Western Thrace whose status was established by the Lausanne Peace Treaty of 1923 and whose rights were guaranteed by several bilateral and multilateral agreements.
Articles from 37 to 44 of the Lausanne Peace Treaty cover the rights of non-Muslim minorities in Turkey, while Article 45 states that “the rights conferred by the provisions of the present Section on the non-Moslem minorities of Turkey will be similarly conferred by Greece on the Moslem minority in her territory”.
The members of the Turkish Minority of Western Thrace, however, cannot enjoy their minority rights. Main problems faced by the Turkish Minority are the following:
Denial of ethnic identity
Greece denies the ethnic identity of the Turkish minority of Western Thrace on the grounds that the Lausanne Peace Treaty refers to “Muslim minority”. However, convention and protocol signed between Turkey and Greece on the exchange of Turkish and Greek Populations of 1923 refer explicitly to Turks and Greeks. Moreover, the “établis”(those who have not been subject to the population exchange) document given to the members of the Turkish and Greek minority respectively in Greece and Turkey by the Turkish-Greek Joint Commission, which states that they are “établis”, also explicitly refers to Turks and Greeks, not Muslims and non-Muslims.
Furthermore, it was Greece itself who made it compulsory for the minority to be called as “Turks” back in the 1950s. Greece had even issued decrees in the 1950s to this end. The minority schools were also called as the “Turkish schools”. The legislation no: 3065/1954 clearly referred to the minority schools as the “Turkish schools”.
However, the Greek authorities changed their policy on political grounds and thus started calling the minority as the “Muslim minority.” Greece also started to ban the associations bearing the adjective “Turk/Turkish” in their titles. The minority brought the cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The ECtHR passed three judgements that the ban on the Turkish Muslim Minority NGOs bearing the adjectives “Turkish/Minority” in their titles is discriminatory and in contradiction with the freedom of association of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECtHR). [Article 11 of the ECtHR] In one case, it was ruled that Greece violated the right to a fair trial [Article 6 of the ECtHR] as well.
However, Greece does not implement these verdicts. Due to the non-implementation of the ECtHR rulings, the issue is still on the agenda of the Committee of the Ministers of the Council of Europe, which supervises the execution of judgements of the ECtHR.
Problems in the field of education
The minority’s right to education in mother tongue is safeguarded by the Lausanne Peace Treaty. However, the minority faces several problems in the field of education. Some new practices in particular towards the minority constitute a step backwards.
Lack of bilingual kindergartens: Kindergartens are part of the compulsory education for the minority as of 2011-2012 school year in Greece. However, the minority’s request for opening bilingual minority kindergartens has not been met, with applications pending from 2011.
Closing down and merging minority elementary schools: Under a new legislation that took effect in 2011, minority elementary schools have either been closed down or merged with others (60 in total). This legislation has not paved the way for the opening of new minority elementary schools in the places, which are in dire need of a minority school.
Lack of adequate number of minority secondary-high schools: The number of minority secondary-high schools is inadequate. Each year approximately 1000 students graduate from the minority elementary schools. However, there are only 2 minority secondary-high schools in the region, one in Komotini-Gümülcine (where the Turkish minority constitutes half of the population), and the other in Xanthi-İskeçe (where the Turkish minority constitutes 45 % of the population). The Greek authorities have not yet responded to the minority’s application to set up new minority schools. The minority’s request to have a brand-new premises for the minority secondary-high school in Xanthi has not been met either.
Lack of enough number of qualified teachers: Number of teachers to be assigned by Turkey and Greece to work in each other’s minority schools was mutually agreed as 35. ( Exchange of Letters of 1952 and 1955 between the Turkish and Greek Foreign Ministries) Yet, this number was unilaterally reduced by Greece to 16 as of 1990-91 school year. The Greek authorities had not allowed the teachers from Turkey to work at the Turkish minority schools in Xanthi for long years despite the fact that there is no such restriction in the aforementioned letters.
The Turkey-educated teachers have not been allowed to work at minority elementary schools since 2002-2003 school year either.
Restrictions in the field of freedom of religion
Article 11 of the Treaty of Athens (1913) reads as follows: “ Each Mufti will be elected by the Moslem electors in their respective jurisdiction areas ”. This provision is also repeated in the Third Protocol annexed to the Treaty. In 1920, Greece put into effect the Law no: 2345/1920 for the implementation of the provisions of the Treaty of Athens.
In 1990, however, in violation of the provisions of the Treaty of Athens, Greece promulgated a Presidential Decree which laid out provisions for the appointment of Muftis by the governors of the provinces, and the Law no: 2345/1920 was abrogated. Subsequently, not only the Greek authorities appointed Muftis against the will of the minority, but also the Muftis elected by the minority were subjected to trials and prison sentences.
The late Mehmet Emin Aga, who was the former Mufti of Xanthi, elected by the Turkish Minority of Western Thrace had been unfairly tried many times and imprisoned. The Mufti was sentenced in January 1995 by the Larissa Court of Appeals in Greece to ten months on charges of “usurping the title of Mufti” and he was then sent to the Larissa Prison. Through the subsequent trials on similar charges, Mehmet Emin Aga was sentenced to 8 years of imprisonment. The Amnesty International declared Mr. Aga as “Prisoner of Conscience” in February 24, 1998.
In the same vein, on October 21, 1996, Mr. İbrahim Şerif, Mufti of Komotini elected in 1990 by members of the Turkish Minority, was convicted for usurping the office as he had used the title of Mufti. He was sentenced to six months of imprisonment, but was released after appeal.
Currently, the elected Muftis of Komotini and Xanthi are still not recognized by the Greek Government. For the cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights by the elected Muftis, there exist 5 decisions by the ECtHR against Greece. The Court ruled in five different cases that Greece had violated freedom of thought, conscience and religion [Article 9 of the ECHR] and that “in democratic societies, the state does not have the right to interfere with communities’ religious leadership.” In one case, Greece was also found in violation of the right to a fair trial [Article 6 of the ECHR].
Furthermore, the elected Muftis of Xanthi and Komotini remain under legal pressure. They are interrogated or sued on grounds that they “usurped the office”. In 2017, the elected Mufti of Xanthi was sentenced to seven-month imprisonment on grounds that he led the funeral prayer of a member of the Turkish minority upon the request of the minority. The sentence was suspended on the condition that he not commit a similar offense within three years.
Against the will of the Turkish minority, the so-called “Law on 240 Imams” was also put into effect in 2013 as a new instrument to interfere with the religious freedom of the minority. This legislation resulted in the appointment of imams, religious instructors against the will of the Minority. The Turkish minority voiced its strong objection to this legislation. Despite the repeated calls of the minority not to implement the law, it has been put into practice.
Problems regarding land and acquisition of immovable properties
According to the official records of the Lausanne Peace Conference, while at the beginning of 1920, the Turkish Minority of Western Thrace owned 84 % of the land in Western Thrace, the proportion has fallen below 25 % today. Lending of extra-beneficial credits to the citizens of Greek origin to encourage the purchase of real estate from the members of Turkish minority, expropriation, the unification of land (anadasmos), non-recognition of Ottoman land titles and possessions, confiscation of the Turkish Minority’s lands by claiming that they were arbitrarily occupied, and the settlement of Greeks in the region who came from the former Soviet Union geography, had caused the loss of land and immovable properties of the Minority.
Problems regarding minority foundations
Greece has been interfering with the administration of the Muslim charitable foundations dating from the Ottoman period in violation of the relevant international agreements. Election of the executive boards of the Muslim foundations by the minority has not been possible since 1967, the military junta takeover. This practice has led to the mismanagement of these foundations, with their properties expropriated. The foundations have also been subject to excessive taxes. The fall of junta in Greece, however, has not paved the way for the removal of such practices introduced during the junta rule.
Deprivation of Greek citizenship
Article 19 of the Greek Citizenship Code, which was in effect between 1955 and 1998, reads as follows: ” A person of non-Greek ethnic origin leaving Greece without the intention of returning may be declared as having lost Greek nationality “. The members of the Turkish Minority lost their citizenship due to the implementation of Article 19, while studying or working abroad (in an EU or non-EU country) and even while doing their compulsory military service in the Greek army.
Some 60 thousand minority members were stripped of their Greek citizenship due to the implementation of this article. While ECRI (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance) reiterated in its report on Greece published on February 24, 2015, “ Some 60 000, mainly ethnic Turks, from Western Thrace lost their Greek citizenship under Article 19 of the citizenship law, which was in force from 1955 until 1998 ”, the Greek Ministry of Interior announced the number of the Greek citizens who were stripped of their nationality under Article 19 as 46.638.
The repeal of the said Article in 1998 was not retroactive, therefore it has not paved the way for the members of the minority to reacquire the Greek and accordingly the EU nationality.
Political representation of the minority
The late Dr. Sadık Ahmet was the first member of the minority to be elected to the Greek parliament in 1989 as an independent Member of Parliament (MP). He was re-elected as an independent MP in 1990 early elections. However, the same year, an amendment was introduced to the Election Code in Greece, through which the 3 % national threshold is applied also for the election of independent candidates. This has curbed the ability of the minority to send independent representatives to the Parliament.
The Turkish minority’s political party was established in 1991 by Dr. Sadık Ahmet, namely Party of “Friendship Equality Peace” (FEP). The FEB achieved a strong showing in the European Parliament elections in 2014. The FEP, which received 42 % and 26 % of the votes in Rhodope and Xanthi, respectively, came out as the first party in these two prefectures. In the Eastern Macedonia and Thrace Region, which contains the prefectures of Rhodope, Xanthi, Evros, Kavala and Drama, the FEP came out as the third party with 12 % of the votes. However, it could not send any MPs to the European Parliament.
Due to the 3% national threshold applied for independent candidates, today, the members of the minority have to run from mainstream political parties to be an MP. In the last general elections that were held in Greece on September 20, 2015, four members of the minority entered the Greek parliament, with three MPs from the prefecture of Rhodopi, 1 MP from Xanthi.
The Turkish Community in the Dodecanese
Along with the Turkish minority of Western Thrace in Greece, there is a Turkish community in Greece living in the Dodecanese, mainly based in Rhodes (Rodos) and Kos (İstanköy). Its population is estimated to be around 6 thousand.
Greece does not recognize the minority rights of the Turkish community in the Dodecanese on grounds that the islands were under the Italian rule when the Lausanne Peace Treaty was signed. The Dodecanese were handed over to Greece following the conclusion of the Paris Peace Treaty in 1947.
In the early 20th century, there were around 20 thousand Turkish inhabitants in the Dodecanese. However, due to restrictions applied to the members of the Turkish community in starting business and purchasing real estates, they had to leave the Dodecanese. The Turks mainly living in Rhodes had to even sign a paper stating that they would not return. The Turks of Dodecanese also lost their citizenship under Article 19 of the Greek Citizenship Code ( See the “Turkish Minority of Western Thrace/Deprivation of Greek citizenship” section for more information ).
Denial of ethnic identity: The ethnic identity of Turks of Rhodes and Kos, who are referred to only as “Muslims” by the Greek authorities, is denied. They are not allowed to establish associations, titles of which contain the word “Turk”/ “Turkish”. The “Rhodes Turkish Society”, which was founded in 1912, was outlawed in 1968 and was closed down in 1987.
Lack of mother tongue teaching : In 1972, three bilingual schools in Rhodes, including the “Suleymaniye Madrasa” and two bilingual schools in Kos were closed down. Therefore, currently there is no school in the Dodecanese where the Turkish children can learn their mother tongue.
Restrictions in the field of religion: In 1947, when the Dodecanese were attached to Greece, the Mufti of Rhodes remained in office as religious leader. Following the death of the Mufti of Rhodes in 1961 and his successor in 1974, acting Mufti of Rhodes served until 1990, the year he died. Since then, the position of Mufti has been kept vacant. Currently, the Turkish community is even deprived of its right to elect its Imams.
Although the Turks of Dodecanese were exempted from the classes on religion at state schools, they are not given the right to opt for classes on Islam.
Problems regarding foundations: The Muslim Community Administration (Cemaat-i İslamiye), which represented the Turks in Rhodes had an authority over the Foundations’ Administration (Evkaf İdaresi). However, with the appointment of a new President of the Foundations’ Administration, namely, Ziyaeetin Pekmezci in 1980, the Muslim Community Administration de-facto ceased to exist.
Furthermore, the Greek authorities have started to appoint a government representative to manage the foundations as of 1967, the military junta takeover. Thus, many properties owned by foundations were either donated or sold, although sale of foundation properties was forbidden by law. It was also forbidden for the Turkish community to take part in tenders organised for selling the properties of foundations. The foundations are also subjected to high taxes. The Turkish community is not allowed to repair and restore their historical buildings and monuments.
Problems in Preserving the Common Cultural Heritage in Greece
There are many Ottoman historical buildings, mosques and monuments in Greece. Many of them were, however, abandoned and left to decay and disappear. Despite some positive steps, the common historical heritage in Greece is not preserved as it should. In March 2017, Sultan Çelebi Mehmet Mosque, one of the most outstanding Ottoman-era mosques, not only in Greece, but the whole Balkans suffered a severe damage as a result of fire.
In some cases, although the Turkish-Muslim cultural heritage is restored by the Greek authorities, the cultural properties’ character is drastically changed during restoration. As in the case of the Sultan Çelebi Mehmet Mosque, the Greek authorities are not willing to restore the Ottoman cultural properties in cooperation with the Turkish authorities either.
The fact that the Turkish Minority of Western Thrace and the Turks of Dodecanese are deprived of their rights to manage their own foundations (waqfs), also limits their efforts to preserve their cultural heritage.