On March 25, 2012, US President Barack Obama congratulated Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for his decision to reopen the Theological School of Halki. The Halki seminary, the main theological school of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, was shut down by the Turkish government in 1971. For the last couple of years, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) raised the hopes of Orthodox Christians all around the world that the seminary was to reopen. Many were sure the democratization package of Sept. 30 would realize this dream. It did not, and indeed now the possibility looks even less likely.
When asked about Halki, Erdogan and his ministers, particularly Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, EU Minister Egemen Bagis and Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, made it clear that Halki was deliberately kept out of the package. Erdogan reiterated that the reopening of the school is a matter of minutes for Turkey, with no legal barriers remaining. Erdogan explained Halki was not in the package because, “Why should we always give? We ask for reciprocity.”
Erdogan set two conditions: First, the Greek government should allow Turkey to renovate two Athens mosques from the Ottoman era and open them for services. Second, Erdogan said, “We have 150,000 compatriots in Western Thrace; the Greek government appoints a mufti for them, while we do not get involved in who will be the patriarch in Istanbul. We ask the Greek government to let the Muslims to choose their own mufti.”
It is intriguing that democratization package holds a matter of religious freedom as a “bargaining chip” for the inalienable rights of an “official minority” in Turkey; and the Turkish government openly demands “reciprocity” from Greece on an issue that was omitted from its own democratization package for “Turkish citizens’ rights.” If you are confused already, you can join in the “minorities” on both sides of the border. Neither side was happy to hear their rights turned back into the Oriental bazaar for concessions.
A Greek academic friend, during a delightful evening chat, told me she was surprised that these complicated matters resurfaced under the obsolete “reciprocity” concept. She said, “This is a big mistake, because you cannot seek reciprocity in matters of human rights. This is not ethical or legal. If Halki will be reopened it must be reopened to enhance and protect the religious rights and liberties of Turkish citizens, not for the Greek government.” She added that many Greeks agree that the Muslim minority in Western Thrace should have further rights, but Erdogan’s method is indeed counterproductive.
When we look at Erdogan’s conditions, we understand why it is difficult for the Greek government to meet them. First, the issue of appointing versus electing muftis is more complicated than it may seem. But Western Thrace Turks agree that the Greek government is working on the issue.
Currently in Western Thrace there are three appointed and two elected muftis. The elected muftis serve as spiritual leaders, whereas the appointed ones have official capacity to act as judges for matters of Islamic law (Sharia). The community shares divergent views on the mufti assignment process. An anonymous Greek journalist told Al-Monitor, “Some wish the Greek government would nominate all muftis, some wish the populace would choose them, while some wish the muftis would be stripped of their power on Sharia in family law for the community.”
This is where it gets tricky. The Greek government’s argument is that since the muftis have judicial powers (enforcing Sharia); muftis have to be appointed just like judges. In Turkey as well, all imams and muftis are appointed to their mosques and regions by the government.
More intriguingly on the principle of reciprocity, Burak Bekdil, a columnist for Hurriyet Daily News, told Al-Monitor, “What Erdogan fails to understand is that there is nothing in Greek Orthodoxy that requires that the Ecumenical Patriarch must be Greek. There have been many non-Greek Patriarchs. It is theoretically possible that a future Patriarch could be a Turkish citizen of Arabic origin, or American. What would Erdogan do in that case, seek reciprocity in Syria, the United States?” Indeed, the Patriarch represents the Orthodox Church, not Greece per se.
Erdogan and his ministers must understand these intricacies, since these issues have been sore spots between Turkey, Greece, the EU and the international community for decades. Why does Erdogan reignite the flames of “minorities” and “religious freedoms” as a public bargaining tool with the Greek government?
In response to Erdogan, Greek Foreign Minister and Deputy Premier Evangelos Venizelos stated “any further public discussion of these issues would be counterproductive.” Venizelos’ concern for costs on both sides of the border should not be ignored. Achilles Hekimoglou, a journalist with the newspaper “TO VIMA” told Al-Monitor, “I think that Erdogan is trying to appear as a defender of Faith in the Muslim world and as a successor of the Ottoman legacy. We call that in Greek politics “Micromegalism.”
Erdogan’s next condition is the permission to renovate the two Ottoman-era mosques in Athens. This is a sensitive matter. Chrysi Avgi, or Golden Dawn, is an ultra-nationalist party that has been extreme in its anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and Islamophobic narratives. Currently, its leadership is going through a rough time due to allegations of criminal activity. Chrysi Avgi-affiliated groups have attacked several Muslim residents praying in makeshift mosques or open-air public squares on major holidays. The Greek government has already agreed to build a taxpayer-funded mega-mosque in Athens in 2010, yet pundits fear Erdogan’s conditions would only fan the flames of ultra-nationalist rhetoric.
Hekimoglu told Al-Monitor, “Turkey's interventions always feed nationalism. There is an empirical proof that says that whenever Ankara faces internal problems, it exports some distraction to Greece.”
Now, coming back to why Erdogan rehashed these long-debated issues for Turkish audiences is a contested question. Although AKP pundits contend Erdogan only assumes a tall responsibility to protect the “Turkish” minority in Thrace, one cannot wonder why Erdogan chose the mosque and imam issues while keeping quiet about other issues, such as Turkish language education.
Is it too paranoid to question whether Erdogan’s sole concern is to increase AKP's political grip on imams of Western Thrace? How well does the condition of reciprocity hold in matters of inalienable human rights and liberties? Was not this unethical rule of “reciprocity” at the root of the horrible experience of Mubadele (Ἡ Ἀνταλλαγή, the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey solely on the basis of religious identity in the early 1920s)?
There are fewer than 2,000 Greek Orthodox Christians in Istanbul, and it seems that these veteran residents of the city will never be Turkish enough, for their basic rights are still a matter of international bargaining by the government. While the Kurds, Arabs, Lazs and other ethnicities with Muslim identities can somehow be accepted as Turkish, non-Muslims will still remain as “gavur” (a pejorative term to mean “xeno,” the Other, foreigner) at least until the next democratization package.
Pinar Tremblay is a doctoral candidate in political science at University of California, Los Angeles, and an adjunct faculty member at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She has previously been published in the Hurriyet Daily News and Today's Zaman. On Twitter: @pinartremblay
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