İstanbul's Greek community has welcomed an announcement from Minister of Education Nabi Avcı agreeing to their demand to open a primary school on Gökçeada (Imbros), an island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Çanakkale, but they also note that the dwindling population of Turkey's Greeks -- called Rums -- remains a serious problem for the community thriving again.There was already a primary school on Gökçeada, in but was closed down in 1964 at the time of the deportation of ethnic Greeks.
In September 2012, many Greeks deported from İstanbul in the '50s and '60s applied to reclaim their citizenship rights. However, the applications have not yet been approved. Head of the Federation of İstanbul Rums Nikolaos Uzunoğlu said: “Positive developments have taken place over the past two years. The government has taken very positive steps regarding Greek minorities, but the bureaucracy is really sluggish.” He said although the number of Rums who will actually return to İstanbul is not too large, it is still very important. “We are from İstanbul. This way, we will be able to preserve our own culture.”
Turkey's Greek schools are on the verge of closure because the Greek community's population is close to the point of disappearance. Since January 2011, four Greek schools were shut down by their owners. There are estimated to be only 180-200 Turkish citizens of Greek origin on Gökçeada. However, the population of the island has been growing, according to European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış, who said more Greeks were returning to Turkey owing to the financial crisis in Greece. He said it “made utmost sense” to open this school.
Laki Vingas, elected representative of non-Muslim foundations at the Council of the General Assembly of the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM), tweeted on Thursday, “Gökçeada will get a Greek school 49 years later. May it be beneficial to all.”
Gökçeada Mayor Yücel Atalay thanked the minister. “Our wish is that the Rum [Turkey's Greeks] return to their villages as soon as possible.”
Even though the Greek population in Turkey was no less than 125,000 in the 1930s, tension between Turkey and Greece has greatly affected their survival in Turkey. Following the İstanbul riots of Sept. 6-7, 1955 and the 1964 deportation of roughly 12,000 ethnic Greeks without Turkish citizenship, the Greek population has been in constant decline in Turkey. By 1966, the Greek population in İstanbul was reduced to less than 30,000, and it has been diminishing ever since. The population of Turkey's Greek community is estimated to be around 3,000 today.
In total, there are 250 ethnic Greek students in Turkey attending the few Greek schools left in İstanbul. One of these schools is the Zografyon Greek High School, established in 1893. It has only a handful of students.
Uzunoğlu said it is of extreme importance to increase İstanbul's Greek community to preserve the group's culture. He said his organization had written to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about the issue and applied to the Foreign Ministry and the European Affairs Ministry to restore the citizenship rights of those who had to leave Turkey in the past. In addition to citizenship, the organization demands the return of property seized from the members of the Greek minority who were forced to leave, allowing students from EU member nations to enroll in Greek schools in Turkey, handing over the Rum Literary Society library to an İstanbul-based Greek organization and financial and educational support for young Greeks in Turkey.
Uzunoğlu said: “It is not important how many Turkish Greeks will return here. It is important to us that they return, even in symbolic numbers.” Vice president of the federation Kosma Kocamanoğlu said Greeks have always served the country. Kocamanoğlu, who left Turkey in 1964, said Turkey's Greek community has always respected the authorities. “The lowest crime rates have historically been in Rum neighborhoods. The Rums fought for this country at Çanakkale and in Korea.”
Minas Tsitsakos, another vice president of the federation, said Turkey still has military service as a requirement for citizenship. He said his family left Turkey in 1964, when he was a young man. “This is very important. They are telling me that I have to serve in the military for citizenship. I am no draft dodger. I was a kid when I left. I am now 69, how can I possibly serve in the military?
Young Rums want to return, want support
Uzunoğlu said many younger descendants of those who left want to return to Turkey, adding that the federation has asked Turkish officials to support these people. “We want a support program targeting the younger generation, both in terms of education and financial support. They will need to be taught Turkish, it would be useful. An organization could offer grants or loans for promising entrepreneurs and their new companies to enable them to integrate into the economy of Turkey.”
Kocamanoğu said he and his fellow Rums who were forced to leave Turkey come back every two years for what he calls “cemetery tourism.” “All our relatives are buried here.” He said the issue faced by Rums and other non-Muslim minorities is directly related to Turkey's problems with democracy.
Secretary-General of the federation Mihal Mavropulos said he left Turkey in 1971. “They tried to drive us off the island. First they shut down the Greek schools and then they nationalized two fields. Later, they turned that place into a prison for convicts.”
The İstanbul Rums Universal Federation was established in 2005, with its founders deciding that democracy in Turkey has now taken root, thanks to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.