In the summer of 2018, the spiritual leaders of non-Muslim communities in Turkey publicly declared that religious and ethnic minorities were not persecuted, that there were no ethnic problems in the country and that all the talk in the media about religious and ethnic oppression was a lie invented by journalists and opposition politicians since most of the problems had been successfully solved, compared with the times of the Kemalist regime.
The 18 hierarchs who signed the declaration included Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church; Archbishop Aram Ateshyan, General Vicar of the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul; and Yusuf Cetin, the Patriarchal Vicar of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Istanbul and Ankara. The other signatories were the leaders of community-based religious and charitable institutions.
Are things with religious minorities in Erdogan’s Turkey really that good, as the religious leaders insisted in their open letter? Given the real situation with non-Muslims in Turkey, such public statements rather attest to the opposite. Due to administrative/legal harassment and financial difficulties, more and more young non-Muslims have been emigrating to the West in recent years, and community-based religious and cultural institutions have been under increasing pressure from the authorities, despite some positive trends in the 2000s. The expropriation of community property, carried out by the authorities since 2012 as expanding cities incorporate rural settlements, reminds one of Kemalist repressions of the 1920s. Many community churches, monasteries and cemeteries have been placed under the authority of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, a special government body which takes care of Islamic affairs only.
The situation with religious and charitable property of minorities (community waqfs), which was expected to improve from year to year after amendments were introduced to legislation in the 2000s, has been showing the opposite trend. In 2013, the government suspended rules regarding the election and appointment of people to boards of trustees that administer community waqfs. As new rules have not been adopted, waqf trustees who are unable to perform their duties due to age or poor health cannot be replaced legally.
In another development, the question of reopening the Halki seminary on Heybeliada Island, closed down by the authorities back in 1971 during an aggravation of the Cyprus conflict (a sensitive issue for the Greek Orthodox community), took a new twist in the 2010s when the Directorate of Religious Affairs proposed building an Islamic educational center next to the seminary.
Over the years of the Republic of Turkey’s existence, its Greek Orthodox population has become almost 50 times smaller, shrinking from slightly less than 120,000 in 1927 (according to a census conducted two years after a population exchange between Greece and Turkey) to only 2,500 in the 2010s. This dramatic reduction of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey threatens not only its cultural and linguistic identity but also its very existence.
KEMALIST INTERPRETATIONS OF THE TREATY OF LAUSANNE AND HOPES FOR THE BETTER
Despite the dramatic changes in Turkey and new approaches towards solving minority problems in the rest of the world, the status of minorities in the country is still regulated by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. In the history of Turkey, the Treaty marked the beginning of Kemalist Turkey as an internationally recognized state, which replaced the broken-up Ottoman Empire. The Conference of Lausanne crowned years of struggle for the future of Turkey, which was defeated in World War I and survived the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922, referred to in Turkey as the War of Independence. That is why the Treaty’s approach to ethnic issues was determined by considerations of national security rather than by a search for compromise in protecting the rights of minorities, whose activities inside and outside the country during the last few decades of the Ottoman Empire were viewed as subversive.
The Kemalist discourse on the issue of ethno-confessional minorities was deeply affected by the attitude towards ethnic (especially non-Islamic) minorities as one of the main culprits responsible for the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. From the very beginning, Kemalists regarded the primacy of national security as a core principle in dealing with issues pertaining to the rights of ethnic/religious minorities. In this way, they sought to prevent a repetition of mistakes made by the Ottoman government, whose policies turned the ethnic issue into a tool for destroying the country’s statehood. Kemalists narrowed the very concept of minority, leaving aside the diversity of ethnic, linguistic and religious peculiarities of the Muslim population and applying this category exclusively to non-Muslims, who were guaranteed not only equal civil rights with Muslims but also a certain degree of freedom in matters of religion, culture and education. The Treaty of Lausanne provided ample opportunities for protecting the cultural identity of non-Muslim minorities; in practice, however, those provisions were distorted to meet current political interests of the Turkish authorities to the detriment of the rights and freedoms of “recognized minorities.”
The current policy of Ankara is not to sign international agreements that have at least something to do with minorities, or to sign them on condition that their provisions should be consistent with the Treaty of Lausanne and the current Constitution. Obviously, many of the Treaty’s provisions have become obsolete over the 95 years that have passed since its conclusion and do not match the present political situation and new international norms regarding the protection of minorities. Also, most of the problems faced by non-Muslim minorities in Turkey are rooted not in the Treaty of Lausanne but in its interpretation by the Turkish government, which not only understands the rights and freedoms of minorities quite loosely but has also limited this very concept.
For example, the Treaty gave the status of “official minority” to all non-Muslim citizens of Turkey, but in reality only three groups were included in this category—the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Gregorian, and Jewish communities. All other traditional non-Muslim groups (Assyrians, Catholics, Protestants and others) did not receive this status. The interests of these groups were largely ignored; their right to preserve their religious and cultural identity and create educational institutions of their own was not recognized, and at best they could perform religious rites. But even officially recognized minorities were not granted all the rights and freedoms that were guaranteed by the Treaty of Lausanne either. Guided by considerations of national security and current political interests, the Turkish authorities strictly regulated the scope of rights “official minorities” could have in the fields of religion, culture and education.
The swift substitution of the formal provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne with their distorted interpretations caused many problems, still unsolved. These included issues pertaining to religious and charitable property (community waqfs) and the right to establish educational institutions.
This is why the criticism of norms regulating the rights and freedoms of minorities, which was particularly strong in the 1990s and 2000s, concerned not the Treaty’s provisions regarding the rights of ethnic minorities but their interpretations by Kemalists.
The scale and nature of the Turkish authorities’ discriminatory policy towards the Greek Orthodox minority can be clearly seen in three areas—regulatory, financial/economic, and security. From the regulatory and administrative points of view, the Turkish authorities view the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Greek Orthodox community as two separate yet interrelated components of the Greek Orthodox minority. At the same time, Ankara has always questioned the legal personality and legal capacity of the Patriarch of Constantinople, considering him just the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey. The Turkish authorities do not recognize the patriarch’s ecumenical status and emphasize that he “only has the permission to stay in Turkey,” that he is just an object of Turkish law and that “claims to ecumenical status have no grounds and would imply a special position for one of the minority groups, which is against the law.” The same logic was behind the demand that members of the Holy Synod and the patriarch himself should be Turkish citizens. Repeated attempts to challenge this rule in court (as neither the Treaty of Lausanne nor the Constitution contains such a requirement) have failed. The internationalization of the Holy Synod, started by Patriarch Bartholomew I in 2004, sparked a flurry of criticism in the media as “an attempted conspiracy to elect a foreigner as the next patriarch” and prompted an investigation into the patriarch’s activities.
Another instrument of oppression is the ban on reopening the Halki seminary on Heybeliada Island. The absence of other educational institutions for Orthodox priests in Turkey prevents the clergy of the Patriarchate of Constantinople from incorporating new members: Orthodox Turks who studied abroad to become priests rarely return to Turkey for a remote prospect of joining the Holy Synod or a hypothetical election as Ecumenical Patriarch. Also, foreigners willing to work in the Patriarchate of Constantinople have to go through complicated visa procedures and, once they have a visa, leave the country regularly to renew it.
In turn, the ban on the election of new members to boards of waqf trustees, who ensure the functioning of community schools, hospitals, churches and other social, cultural and charitable institutions, causes huge problems in their work, which the General Waqf Directorate uses as a reason for seizing unused religious property without compensation. For example, many Christian cemeteries in Istanbul have been withdrawn from under community jurisdiction and placed under the control of municipalities. Also, the authorities prohibit the restoration of dilapidated churches or places of worship destroyed in terrorist attacks.
The 1990s were a period of active negotiations between Ankara and Brussels on Turkey’s broader European integration and its subsequent entry into the European Union, which required Turkey to amend its minorities legislation. This was not only due to external factors, namely, pressure from the EU. The need to change the status of ethnic minorities was also brought about by their strengthened religious, ethnic and cultural identity. From the very start of negotiations, the EU identified minority-related issues as a priority. Annual reports of the European Commission on Turkey’s progress in fulfilling the EU’s Copenhagen criteria, published since 1998, constantly pointed to the need for Ankara to expand the rights of “unrecognized” Muslim and non-Muslim minorities. Brussels actually called on Ankara to abandon its traditional ethnic policy and years-long practice of violating the rights of ethnic and religious minorities.
The victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in a general election in 2002 under the slogans of joining the EU and bringing more democracy to the country inspired hope that under Brussels’ pressure the Turkish authorities would have to change their approach to the rights of ethnic minorities and the ethnic issue in general. On the other hand, the AKP has its origin in the Milli Görüş (National Vision) Islamist movement known for anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, which worried the Jewish community, even though Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other AKP leaders have publicly dissociated themselves from this legacy. However, the anti-Zionist rhetoric of major AKP functionaries and anti-Zionist sentiment among conservative groups of Turkish society only increased the Jewish community’s distrust.
The Armenian Gregorian and Greek Orthodox communities were much more positive about the AKP and considered the new government’s slogans and first steps a “reflection of more liberal and less nationalistic views” which should “liberalize the ethnic policy.” The Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Mesrop II Matufyan, in the 2000s openly stated that Armenians in Turkey supported the AKP. The Armenian-language newspaper Agos, published in Istanbul, cited the results of public opinion polls, according to which over 60 percent of the Armenian community (more than 70,000 people) had voted for the AKP at parliamentary and municipal elections in the 2000s. According to the editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based Greek-language Apoyevmatini weekly, Michael Vasiliadis, the majority of the Greek Orthodox community, too, supported the AKP at elections in the 2000s.
The positive attitude of the Greek Orthodox community was explained then by the beginning of a constructive dialogue with ethnic minorities and the government’s demonstrative readiness to make concessions to meet their interests.
The first such step was an amendment to the Zoning Law, adopted in late 2003, which replaced the old norm referring only to mosques with a more general notion of “places of worship.” Churches and synagogues were thus given equal rights with mosques, which implied the allocation of land for the construction of houses of worship on preferential terms and free water and electricity supply. The signal was received with enthusiasm, and new churches and synagogues began to be built in various parts of Turkey. In 2004, Erdogan attended the reopening of Neve Shalom, the main synagogue of Istanbul, rebuilt after a terrorist attack. In the same year, a religious complex comprising a mosque, a church and a synagogue was formally inaugurated in the resort town of Belek. In 2005, two new Protestant churches were opened in Ankara and Diyarbakir.
Another symbolic step was the establishment of the Council on Minority Issues in 2004, which replaced the High Commission on Minorities, set up by Kemalists—a special agency created by a secret government decree in 1962 to monitor activities of the non-Muslim population. The main task of the Commission, which comprised officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior, the counterintelligence service, and the National Security Council, was to suppress potentially dangerous activities (such as the organization of summer youth camps), whereas the Council focused on the creation of a mechanism for direct interaction with members of ethnic minorities and the solution of their problems.
The very establishment of such an agency, which comprised not only high-ranking officials from the Ministry of the Interior and the Foreign Ministry but also the Ministry of Education and the Directorate General of Foundations, showed the government’s intention to end security agencies’ monopoly on minority issues. It was not accidental that security agencies were not represented in the Council, which gave priority to working out proposals to improve the legislation on community waqfs and minority rights. These proposals were intended to bring educational institutions in the country into conformity with the requirements of the European Commission and recommendations of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In other words, it was not supervision over communities’ activities but help with the solution of their problems.
It would seem that such a promising beginning should have become a prologue to a real revolution in the position of minorities in Turkey and set the stage for bringing their status in line with European standards. However, the first few AKP Cabinets made largely symbolic moves in this area but failed to solve two main problems: the exercise of the right to establish educational institutions for training the clergy and the lifting of restrictions on the creation, ownership and management of religious and charitable property (community waqfs). It is not surprising that, having received the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the authorities, the minorities described the solution of problems pertaining to religious property and religious education as a guarantee of preserving the cultural diversity of the non-Muslim population of Turkey. However, neither in the 2000s, nor in the 2010s did the AKP government address these issues, which were the essence of Kemalists’ discriminatory policies towards minorities.
DEGRADATION OF THE POLITICAL INFLUENCE OF THE GREEK ORTHODOX COMMUNITY
In today’s Turkey, the Greek Orthodox community has insignificant political influence and is not represented in legislative or executive bodies. It has little chance to influence political processes through civil society mechanisms, which reflects a catastrophic decrease in the community’s population.
In the 18th century, noble Greek families, who lived mostly in Phanar, a historical district in the European part of Istanbul (which is why they were called Phanariotes), held major positions in the Ottoman bureaucracy. Until the Greek War of Independence of 1821, the Phanariotes held all of the important court positions such as chief dragoman at the Sultan’s court or interpreter for the Kapudan Pasha, the commander-in-chief of the Ottoman navy. They also oversaw foreign policy issues at the Divan (Imperial Council) of the Sultan and were appointed hospodars (“masters”) of the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. In the second half of the 19th century, the political influence of the Greeks began to decline, but their role in the empire’s economic life rapidly strengthened. The beginning of the second stage of the Tanzimat reforms in 1856 and the proclamation of the principle of equality for all religious communities in the empire provided the Greeks with new opportunities for regaining the lost political positions. Members of the Greek millet were appointed to the Supreme Legal Council of Istanbul and other important government bodies. The adoption of the Constitution by the Sultan in 1876, which proclaimed the equality of all subjects of the empire, only strengthened this tendency. More than a third of deputies (47 out of 119) elected to the first Ottoman parliament, convened in 1877, were members of non-Muslim minorities.
Reforms in the second half of the 19th century created mechanisms that helped members of ethnic and religious communities of the empire join the imperial bureaucracy and share the burden of responsibility for state affairs. The Greeks, along with other non-Muslim ethnic groups, became an integral part of the political establishment. They served as ministers, ambassadors, governors, treasurers, deputies, and senators. Outstanding Ottoman Greek statesmen included Kostaki Musurus Pasha, who held the crucial post of ambassador to Great Britain for 35 years (1851-1891), and Alexander Karatheodori, ambassador to Rome (1874), head commissioner of the empire to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, and later minister of foreign affairs.
When the Young Turks came to power in 1908, they did not limit political opportunities for minorities. The restoration of the Constitution and the convening of a bicameral parliament even broadened these opportunities. Ottoman Greeks were elected to all four parliaments (in 1908, 1912, 1914, and 1919), which were formed based on the principle of proportional representation so that the number of Turkish and Muslim deputies was approximately equal to the number of non-Muslim parliamentarians. The representation of minorities in parliament in 1877-1878 and 1908-1920 allowed them to initiate discussions on sensitive issues affecting their interests. For example, deputies from the Greek millet raised issues that directly affected the life of the Greek Orthodox population of the empire, such as taxes levied on non-Muslims, electoral legislation, religious freedoms, military service, and free access to education.
The dissolution of the last Ottoman parliament in 1920 in Istanbul and the establishment of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in Ankara changed the situation dramatically. The Assembly did not have a single deputy from ethnic minorities. It was only in 1935 that a special decree, initiated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, introduced quotas for ethnic minorities in the Assembly (one deputy from each community—Armenian Gregorian, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and Turkish Orthodox).
Turkey’s transition to a multi-party system in the 1940s did not change the situation much: there were only six deputies from minorities in parliament, and their number reached 12 only by the end of the 1950s. At some point, ethnic minorities began to be actively involved in political life. The military coup of 1961 stopped this tendency. In the 1960s, the lower house of parliament again had only one deputy from each of the minorities. Bad days began for the Greek Orthodox community—the deterioration of relations between Ankara and Athens provoked the adoption of a law on the deportation of Greeks from Turkey (1964), which led to a sharp decrease in the Greek Orthodox population of the country.
This blow to the Greek Orthodox community affected other minorities, too: since the 1960s, almost not a single Armenian or Jew has run for parliament (the rare exception was Jeffi Kamhi from the Jewish community, elected to the Assembly from the liberal True Path Party in 1995). In all, only 26 members of ethnic minorities were elected deputies in the 1930s-2010s, of whom only eight represented the Greek Orthodox community.
The inability to participate in parliamentary activities and wage political struggle to defend its interests caused the Greek Orthodox community to develop alternative mechanisms. Based on its rich experience of creating and managing autonomous public institutions independent of the central authority in the Ottoman Empire, the Greek community formed non-parliamentary channels for interacting with the government and special tools to protect its rights regarding the management of religious and charitable property, access to educational institutions, education in the Greek language, etc. The main tools were two institutions that were particularly important for the community: the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Consulate-General of Greece in Istanbul.
PARAMETERS OF TURKISH GREEKS’ POLITICAL STRUGGLE FOR THEIR RIGHTS
Contrary to the principle of laicism, enshrined in the Constitution, the Patriarch of Constantinople retained the role of a core institution organizing the life of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey. Even when community members won seats in parliament or worked in central or local government bodies, the rest of the community still pinned much more hope in defending their collective rights and interests on the patriarch, even though he did not have formal powers, nor resources to justify these expectations. Nevertheless, it was the patriarch who always was particularly active in protecting the community’s interests. He regularly met with Turkish and Greek politicians, consulted with European Commission officials, and used every opportunity to promote positive solutions to key problems faced by the Greek Orthodox community.
Similarly, the work of the Consulate-General of Greece in Istanbul also goes beyond the formal scope of activities, as it has always been viewed not only as a diplomatic mission but also as an institution bearing moral responsibility for the Greek Orthodox community. This unofficial remit is often much broader than the formal one which is reduced to issues related to the Greek population of Istanbul.
Members of the Greek Orthodox community regularly contact the Consulate-General for legal advice on a wide variety of issues. The reception hall of the Greek consul on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul hosts traditional celebrations of national holidays. The Consulate organizes cultural and educational events to unite the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul. Financial support for the community also comes through the Consulate. Thus, the Greek government acts as another defender for the interests of the Greek Orthodox population in Turkey. With the help of the Consulate, it provides financial assistance to Orthodox Churches, community schools and other cultural and educational institutions. Another important aspect of the Greek government’s efforts is that through diplomatic channels it constantly attracts the attention of the international community and European Community organizations to problems of the Greek Orthodox minority.
In addition to the return of previously nationalized property, one of the most acute problems is the maintenance and management of religious and charitable institutions. Current regulations discriminate against minorities’ houses of worship. The Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which has colossal resources, promotes only mainstream Sunni Islam. This is why ethnic and religious minorities, which in the late 2000s accounted for less than one percent of the country’s population, have to maintain their houses of worship and raise funds for religious events on their own, as the government does not give them any subsidies or grants. Dozens of active Christian churches in Istanbul cannot receive permits for reconstruction or raise funds for that, nor regain their property confiscated by the authorities.
In the 2000s, after minorities had won several restitution lawsuits in the ECHR against the Turkish government and due to pressure from Brussels, which named restitution of confiscated property as a precondition for negotiating Turkey’s accession to the EU, the AKP government initiated a revision of the legislation on non-Muslim religious and charitable endowments. Amendments to the legislation gave more rights to the holders of community waqfs, who for the first time were allowed to freely buy, sell and use waqf real estate properties. The General Waqf Directorate published a list of 160 community waqfs that enjoyed all privileges and rights provided for by the new legislation.
However, this legislation was not perfect. Firstly, it did not name properties included in these community waqfs. Secondly, the recognized “community waqfs” did not include many religious and charitable institutions that belonged to non-Muslim communities, which were thus deprived of the rights guaranteed by the new legislation and mentioned in the Treaty of Lausanne. In 2010, following recommendations of the European Commission and fulfilling ECHR rulings and the 2008 Law on Waqfs, the government restituted more than 1,500 properties, of which 774 were returned to the Greek Orthodox community, and 452 to the Armenian Gregorian community. At the same time, the new legislation did not provide for the return of all previously confiscated properties, and 347 restitution claims were rejected. With regard to another 943 properties, the authorities demanded title deeds for them, although most of them were declared community property back in 1936.
For the Greek Orthodox community, however, the restoration of its rights to confiscated property is only part of a larger problem. To date, the community controls the largest number (75) of community waqfs and now seeks to get back another 23 waqfs. The community numbers only 2,500 to 3,000 people, which makes it difficult to manage this vast property and, considering the aging of its members, things will only get worse. On the one hand, the reforms of the 2000s somewhat eased the management of community waqfs as they lifted restrictions on the sale and lease of real estate items belonging to community waqfs, and on the construction of new buildings and donations from community members for their maintenance. On the other hand, the prospect of restituting old waqfs, neglected for a long time, promises more problems than benefits, because their restoration and maintenance would require both financial and human resources. Meanwhile, the Turkish government does not subsidize non-Muslim waqfs and religious institutions. Other community institutions, established back in the later years of the Ottoman Empire, are short of funds, too. These include dernek associations and social, charitable and cultural institutions. In the absence of sufficient financial and human resources, these organizations are unable to solve the problem of preserving the religious and cultural identity of the Greek Orthodox community.
In addition to the administrative/legal dimension, the problem of ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey has another important aspect—the social one. Turkish public opinion is still suspicious of and often negative about minorities. Although the government has lifted some legislative restrictions and repealed some discriminatory laws, one still can see a clear division of citizens into “us” professing Sunni Islam and “them” even in the public rhetoric of functionaries of the ruling AKP. Recent studies have shown that in most of the media, too, there is a discriminatory tone towards minorities. Social media, which should be facilitating the integration of minorities, are becoming a space where they encounter threats, insults, slander, etc. Of minority members polled by Civil Society Dialogue, only 21 percent said that they freely used social media and that they did not feel negative attitudes from others.
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The situation with religious minorities in many respects reflects the logic of the political process of recent decades in Turkey. The social base and the core constituency of the ruling AKP are people of conservative views or even supporters of religious nationalism. For this part of society, nationalism and Islamic identity are interrelated and complementary notions. For them, a revision and dismantling of the Kemalist principle of laicism means, above all, a return of Islam to the public sphere, rather than the creation of a political and legal space for religious pluralism. People on the opposite side of the AKP’s constituency have more liberal views. They are not ready to abandon the principles of Kemalism, but they are disillusioned with politicians of the 1990s and incompetent center-right parties. For the AKP which positions itself as an “overarching party” seeking to expand its constituency, these circumstances dictate the need to constantly look for a balance between religious and secular nationalism.
The aggravation of the political situation in the country, threats to its security coming from areas near its borders since the late 2000s, and the processes of de-liberalization and de-Europeanization have led to a retreat to authoritarianism in the ethnic field as well. Spiritual leaders of non-Muslim communities apparently have adopted the new rules of the game, knowing full well that in today’s Turkey they cannot afford to either criticize the incumbent government or organize protest movements. Also, they do not have any particular hopes for the expansion of their rights; therefore they tend towards conformism and view the natural religious homogenization as an inevitable reality.
 Statistics on the Greek Orthodox population of Turkey may vary. As Professor Samim Akgönül wrote in the 2000s, “if we take only the Greek community of Istanbul, it will number about 3,000; if we add to them the Greek population of Gökçeada and Bozcaada, this figure will increase to 4,000-5,000; finally, if we count all people who have Greek Orthodox origin written in their IDs, the number of this category will be 8,000-10,000 people.”
 In 1933, Ankara and Athens signed a treaty of mutual understanding, which provided for free stay of Greeks and Turks in the territories of both countries (the only exception was made for those who were resettled under the Treaty of Lausanne) and allowed them to extend their residence permits without restrictions and receive work permits. However, in 1964, under the pretext of the aggravation of the situation in Cyprus, the Turkish government unilaterally denounced the treaty and demanded that all Greeks living in Istanbul leave Turkey. In fact, the repression affected not only those who had Greek passports: due to a high degree of cohesion of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey, the expulsion of one person with Greek citizenship, as a rule, led to the emigration of his whole family.