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.”
He said even the head of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, in a meeting with Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputies last week, the minutes of which were leaked to the press, expressed “paranoia” that Armenia might demand territory from Turkey in the future. “Turkey changes, but we see that this logic does not.” He said the biased logic of a "dominant element" is engrained in most people's subconscious: “For example, the prime minister has said [complaining of ‘unjust' insults against him], ‘They have called me -- excuse me for saying it -- an Armenian or Rum [Greek],' as if these are swear words. The only perception regarding Armenians [in Turkey] is that they are traitors.”
Will such calls ever be an incentive to return? The chairman of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden, Afram Yakoub, whose organization has had several meetings with Turkish state officials and who recently met with President Abdullah Gül in Turkey as part of a delegation from Sweden -- home to the largest Syriac minority outside Turkey (and even including those in Turkey, according to some figures) -- also commented on Arınç's comments, saying: “We do acknowledge that Turkey has made some progress on issues of minorities and their rights. Turkish society is also more open today than just a few years ago. However, we don't share the deputy prime minister's view on some important aspects. There's a discrepancy between what Mr. Arınç says Turkey wants and what it is doing on the ground.
"We still see minorities described as traitors in Turkish school books, we still have a court process against one of Christianity's oldest remaining monasteries and there are no serious attempts to talk about the genocide of Assyrians and Armenians. The renovations of churches and synagogues and the return of properties are welcomed, but we feel they are cosmetic gestures performed for the sake of polishing the image of Turkey. We are yet to see a fundamental change in the way Turkey treats and appreciates its minorities.”
Gül and Syriac bishop to visit Sweden
For the first time in history, a minority representative will join the foreign trip of a Turkish president as Turkish Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Çetin is invited to join President Abdullah Gül's trip to Sweden.
Çetin, who was previously invited to the Çankaya presidential palace in Ankara to meet Gül, is among the delegation accompanying the president on his official visit to Sweden. Upon the invitation of Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf, Gül will be heading to Sweden on Sunday and meeting with Turkish Syriac community representatives at the Turkish Embassy. According to Syriac sources, there are around 70,000 Turkish Syriacs living in Sweden.
The head of the Syriac Church of the Virgin Mary Foundation, Sait Susin, told the press on Wednesday that the Turkish Syriac community is happy with the invitation for Çetin to join the delegation.
The Assyrian Federation of Sweden, with members from Turkey's Syriacs, however, said in an interview with Today's Zaman over e-mail that it regards the invitation of the bishop to join Gül as an ugly tactic of the Turkish state. "These kind of tactics don't work in a modern world. No one in Sweden will be fooled to thinkg that Assyrians/Syriacs are well off in Turkey. In fact, the decision to bring the bishop reveals only how desperate Turkish leadership is to try to convey the false image of "all is fine with our minorities."