İstanbul’s Greek population, which was 125,000 in the first years of the republic, is now not more than 2,000.
And Greeks who left or rather had to leave Turkey due to the political and social circumstances in the past are now demanding that the citizenship rights of those who had to leave be restored.
Greeks in İstanbul, known as Rums (Turkey’s Greeks), feel that they have finally found the right ground to voice their demands thanks to recent improvements in the sphere of the rights of minorities. They have been carrying out talks with government officials through the İstanbul Rums Universal Federation, established in 2005.
Previously having written a letter to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan explaining their problems and demands, the federation sent a written statement to the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of EU Affairs in September of last year. In the statement, the federation’s head, Nikolaos Uzunoğlu, presented a number of suggestions to ease such returns. Those suggestions include granting quick Turkish citizenship to people who would like to come back, giving them orientation classes in order to help them open up small businesses and learn Turkish.
Uzunoğlu was born in İstanbul’s Kadıköy district in 1951. He is currently an academic at a university in Athens. He and his family had to leave Turkey in 1974 in an environment of economic and political turmoil in which most non-Muslim communities faced injustices. The Uzunoğlu family, originally from Cappadocia, then started living in Athens. Uzunoğlu says there are around 120,000 Greeks who used to live in İstanbul but had to leave for various reasons and now live in countries such as Greece, Canada, Australia and Germany. He has been fighting to help them get their Turkish citizenship back.
Even though the Greek population in Turkey was no less than 125,000 in the 1930s, tension between Turkey and Greece greatly affected their ability to reside 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 problem that occurred with Greeks in the past is directly related to the deficit in democracy in Turkey, Uzunoğlu said. “Minorities, and in particular non-Muslims, in Turkey were perceived as potential enemies within the country because of the poor democratic culture,” he noted.
The Greeks who had to leave İstanbul believed in the past that the social and political circumstances in Turkey would not allow their demands to be met; but now they have higher hopes because of the positive reforms the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government introduced after it came to power in 2002. The democratic culture in Turkey has improved with the AK Party government, Uzunoğlu underlined. “The government’s moves for the Greek minority are quite positive, but bureaucracy moves too sluggishly,” he complained, adding that what needs to be done is to grant Turkish citizenship to non-Muslim minorities who had to leave Turkey due to the past policy towards non-Muslims in the country.
In the beginning of March, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç made remarks at a conference organized by the Institute of International and Intercultural Dialogue in the German Bundestag, reminding people of his government’s record of improving the lives of minorities in Turkey by expanding their rights. He also called on minorities to return to the country.
Then recently, Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik made statements in Moscow during an official visit where he also called on Christians and Jews who had to leave Turkey to return. “We tell them all, come back to your country,” he said.
In the most recent development, Konstantinos Hristoforidis, president of the Gökçeada Association of Athens, also said that some of the former residents of Gökçeada, an island in the Aegean Sea, who live in Greece are planning to return to their former homes following the Turkish government’s decision to permit the opening of a private Greek elementary school on the island. Having welcomed the government’s decision to open the school, which was closed in 1964 due to the conflict in Cyprus, former Gökçeada residents in Greece hope it will serve as a first step in the long-awaited solution to problems relating to property rights and inheritance.
Young Greeks need support to return to Turkey
Uzunoğlu said the number of Greeks who will return to İstanbul if or when they are granted Turkish citizenship is low, but it is still symbolically important, he notes. “We are from İstanbul. And in this way, we will preserve our culture in this city,” he said.
As he and his friends are old now, it is more important for the young Greeks to return to Turkey to keep their culture alive, Uzunoğlu maintained. That is why the written statement his federation presented to the government last year included the demand of support and encouragement for young Greeks’ return.
Other executives in the federation also expressed their wish that the response to the demands of minorities in Turkey will be positive and end in success.
What are the other demands of İstanbul’s Greeks?
Although İstanbul’s Rums essentially underscore their demand for being granted Turkish citizenship, they also say it is vital to have other necessary conditions met. In addition to citizenship, the organization demands the return of property seized from 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.