September 18, 2022
Ahmet Mete, the mufti of Xanthi — that is to say the senior priest of the Turkish Muslim community in Greece — passed away on July 14. Mustafa Trampa was last week elected to replace him. The election of a new mufti has been a cause for controversy between Turkey and Greece for several decades.
When Greece became independent in 1821, it was a tiny state squeezed in the Morea peninsula, but over the next 90 years it expanded its territories by 300 percent at the expense of the Ottomans. This disproportionate expansion created a problem regarding the protection of the religious rights of the Turkish Muslim community living in the lands that were left to Greece. Similar measures had to be taken to protect the rights of the Greek Orthodox community living in Istanbul.
After Greece’s attempt to invade Anatolia in 1919, which the Greeks call “the Anatolian Tragedy,” it became clear that it would be difficult for these two peoples to live together any longer. Therefore, a compulsory population exchange was agreed at the end of the hostilities in the early 1920s. About 400,000 Turks were expelled from Greece to Turkey and about 1 million Greeks went in the opposite direction. It was an acrimonious exercise, but the two countries were led to the conclusion that it had to be done.
When the Turkish and Greek governments ultimately agreed to implement the decision, two geographic regions were excluded: The Turkish Muslim community residing in Western Thrace in Greece, mainly in Komotini, Xanthi and Alexandroupolis; and the Greek Orthodox community residing in Istanbul and on two tiny islands close to the Dardanelles, Imbros and Tenedos.
This Greek community has now been reduced to about 3,000 people, meaning it makes up less than 0.004 percent of Turkey’s total population. It is sustaining its existence through artificial respiration. There are just 300 living on Imbros and 30 on Tenedos. Such a small minority can hardly sustain its existence in the long run.
The Greek authorities do not disclose the exact size of the Turkish Muslim community in Western Thrace, but scholars believe there are about 160,000 of them.
Both Turkey and Greece are, unfortunately, competing to restrict the rights of their minority citizens.
The Treaty of Lausanne laid down the principles aimed at protecting the rights of both communities. Article 45 provides that “the rights conferred on the non-Muslim minorities of Turkey will be similarly conferred by Greece on the Muslim minority in her territory.” This provision is today almost a dead letter.
The right of the Muslim community to elect its muftis was already recognized by the Treaty of Athens of 1913, which brought an end to the Balkan Wars. In 1920, Greece took a further step by passing a law to reconfirm the rights of the Muslim community to elect their muftis. However, 70 years later, the Greek parliament passed a law authorizing the Greek government to “appoint” muftis. Thus, a practice that had been almost abandoned for decades had now gained legal status, though it openly contradicted Greece’s obligations stemming from the Treaty of Lausanne. As a result, there are now, in Western Thrace, appointed muftis in addition to the muftis elected by the congregation but ignored by the Greek government.
Turkey has never tried to impose any restrictions on the election of religious leaders by the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul, while Greece permanently harasses the Turkish Muslim community in its territory.
Innumerable court cases were initiated against the late mufti of Xanthi Mehmet Emin Aga on the pretext of illegally using the title of mufti and he was sentenced to a total of 100 months in prison.
More recently, similar legal action was taken against Ibrahim Sherif, the elected mufti of Komotini, but he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and it unanimously — even with the participation of Cypriot and Greek judges — ordered Greece to pay compensation for violating Sherif’s freedom of religion under the European Convention on Human Rights. However, Greece still refuses to amend or repeal its law giving it the power to appoint muftis.
The author of this article criticized Turkey in a recent article for not implementing the European Court of Human Rights verdict regarding the Osman Kavala case. If a country accepts, by its own volition, the jurisdiction of an international court, it has an obligation to implement its verdicts. This is equally valid for both Turkey and Greece. Cherry-picking among the verdicts cannot be justified.
Both Turkey and Greece are, unfortunately, competing to restrict the rights of their minority citizens. If, instead, they were able to further boost their rights, these minorities could render excellent services toward the building of bridges of friendship between the two countries.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.
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