Ankara seeks to ease Greek anger after Gümülcine visit

The Turkish capital has quickly responded to the Greek media interpretation of a stop by Turkish Foreign Minister.

Ankara seeks to ease Greek anger after Gümülcine visit
Babacan, who is also the country's chief EU negotiator, paid an official three-day visit to Greece this week for the first time in his capacity as foreign minister. The minister's choice for visiting Gümülcine (Komotini in Greek) in northeastern Greece on Wednesday, the last day of his visit, and his remarks there have drawn ire from Greek media. "The minister, who also traveled to Western Thrace during his visit to Greece, told the Turkish minority living in this region that it is natural for them to exercise in the proper sense the rights that were granted them by the Treaty of Lausanne, to which Greece is also a party, and gave messages in this direction.

In addition, he also stressed that the Turkish minority benefits from the rights offered via EU citizenship just like all other Greek citizens. His remarks should be evaluated within this framework," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Levent Bilman said in a brief statement released on Friday. His statement came in the form of a response to a question from a journalist.

"As a matter of fact, it is known by everybody that our minorities are a bridge of friendship between the two countries," Bilman added.

While in Gümülcine Babacan visited the office of İbrahim Şerif, an elected mufti who is not recognized by the Greek government, which instead insists on appointing muftis without election. While there, the minister also visited the headquarters of the Union of Turkish Youth of Gümülcine/Komotini. The building has been used as a local club since the union, founded in 1938, was dissolved in 1987 by a Greek court. The court held at the time that the word "Turkish" referred to citizens of Turkey and could not be used to describe citizens of Greece and that the use of the word "Turkish" to describe Greek Muslims endangered the public order.

"Greece is today a full member of the EU, which is a set of values. … A country which is a full EU member has to grant certain rights and freedoms to its all citizens. This is also an obligation of Greece and Turkey stemming from [the] Lausanne [Treaty]," Babacan said in a speech delivered to Turkish minorities living in Gümülcine.

The Turkish minority in Western Thrace has long been a source of diplomatic tension between the two neighboring countries, Greece and Turkey. Turkey considers the whole of the Muslim minority to be an ethnic Turkish minority. Greece, on the other hand, considers only a small percentage of the minority to be ethnically Turkish, saying that the majority of them are Greek and therefore a religious minority.

The Treaty of Lausanne, one of the founding treaties of the Turkish Republic, obligates Turkey and Greece to grant and respect a broad array of rights for the Greek minority of Istanbul and the Turkish minority of Western Thrace. Such rights include equality before the law, free exercise of religion, free use of its own language, including in primary schools, and control over their own religious affairs.

Referring to problems related to "the Turkish identity" in Western Thrace, Babacan said in Gümülcine: "There is no need to be afraid of this [Turkish identity]. It should be openly used; fear has no use at all. By not allowing use of the word 'Turkish,' by not writing [this word], you cannot destroy the Turkish identity. These issues should not be a problem, particularly in a country which is a member of the EU."

Soon after the visit, Greek daily Kathimerini quoted Greek Foreign Ministry sources as saying on Thursday that Babacan's advice to Turks living there to demand their rights had caused concern over a planned visit by Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis to Turkey. Greek daily To Vima said Babacan's call to Gümülcine Turks to seek their rights was "provocative," while Greek daily Apoyevmatini claimed Babacan put on his "European face" when he had his talks in Athens and revealed the "other face of Turkish policy" during his trip to Gümülcine.

"Athens' policy on Muslim Greeks in Thrace is based on respect for legal rights and equality," Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman George Koumoutsakos said on Thursday in comments on Babacan's trip. "This is the fact in Thrace, and everyone in Turkey must understand this. … Muslim Greeks do not need a lawyer."

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Güncelleme Tarihi: 08 Aralık 2007, 15:25