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Turkey’s minorities want concrete action following Arınç comments

06.03.2013, Today’s Zaman

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç in remarks made on Tuesday called on minorities who left Turkey in the past due to mistreatment to return to the country, and also gave positive messages about minority rights, but Turkey’s minority communities remain doubtful whether the promising remarks will be followed up with concrete steps.
Speaking at a conference organized by the Institute of International and Intercultural Dialogue in the German Bundestag on Tuesday, Bülent Arınç recalled his government’s record on improving the lives of minorities in Turkey by expanding their rights. Arınç added that they are putting great effort into making peace prevail by burying negative events in the past. “Turkey wants to see the advent of lasting peace in the country, the region and the world and it seeks and supports people’s right to freely exercise their religion,” Arınç stressed.

He also said the Greek Orthodox Halki (Heybeliada) Seminary in İstanbul should be reopened for clerics to be trained for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Orthodox community. He said the seminary, which was closed in 1971, should be reopened in order to meet the need for clerics for the Patriarchate and the wider community. He said although the Greek administration should take steps to conciliate Turkey and Turkish minorities in Western Thrace, that does not mean Turkey will wait to do their part. He added that the Greek Orthodox community is in need of clerics and called it a “human right,” in contrast to an earlier remark from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan which implied, in less strict terms, that Turkey expected the Greek government to open a mosque before the seminary would be reinstated.

Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities are leery of state agencies, understandably, as most promises or positive remarks have yielded no results or even worsened the situation. Over the past century, minorities have been target of massacres, pogroms, unjust laws, property seizures and outright deportation and representatives of these groups note it will take more than a few pleasant remarks to restore faith in the government.

Mihail Vasiliadis, editor-in-chief of Apoyevmatini, a Greek weekly newspaper serving the small remainder of the once-sizeable Greek community in İstanbul, recalled that Prime Minister Erdoğan had also called on the Orthodox Greeks of Turkey to return. He noted, “I am really tired of saying this again and again. It sounds nice to say that those who left should return. But 90 percent of them have passed away, making it highly unlikely that they will be able to return.”

Vasiliadis said the call to return did not mean anything for the Greek Orthodox community in practice. “And the children of those who left, why should they return? They are people who were born in another country and who have made their lives there,” he remarked. He said if the government has a sincere desire to prevent the Greek community’s dwindling population from disappearing altogether, the only thing that could work would be to draw back new blood from Greece, by offering people looking for work papers without a hassle. “And if such a gesture takes place, you shouldn’t be asking for a mosque in Athens or a cemetery in Thessaloniki in return,” he said, repeating a well-known problem that has troubled Turkey’s minorities for decades: being used as peons or an instrument for leverage in international diplomacy.

Garo Paylan, an activist working for an Armenian civil society organization, said the Armenian community, like others, has heard such “romantic calls” many times before. He said the state has an official line with the idea of a “dominant ethnic group” engrained in it, one which doesn’t see its citizens equally, and that the state has always viewed Armenians as leverage in relations with Armenia. Paylan said as long as this logic is in place, Turkey’s Armenians will never feel at home in the country. “These are things that don’t make us feel like we are equal citizens.”

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