Erdoğan refers to Turks in Greece in seminary debate

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

January 05, 2010, Tuesday/ 17:31:00
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said the Greek government should be more sensitive to the demands of its Turkish minority in light of expectations for Turkey to open Halki (Heybeliada) Seminary, which has been closed since 1971 and was the only school where Turkey’s Greek minority was able to educate its clergymen.

Erdoğan was responding to a question on the future of the seminary from the Radikal daily in the January issue of its Kriter supplement and said the government has been working to improve the conditions of Turkey’s minorities.

“The issue of the seminary requires a multifaceted approach. The issue should be worked out in detail regarding our laws and education system. Our ministers and institutions continue to work on the issue,” he said, and then referred to the hardships faced by the Turkish minority in Greece.

“The Greek government should take into consideration the demands of its Turkish minority in Western Thrace. The Greek government should be concerned about the problems of their clergy, leadership, joblessness and minority associations and find solutions.”

Today’s Zaman asked the İstanbul-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate whether or not they had been contacted by the government directly or indirectly regarding the opening of the seminary, and their spokesman, Dositheos Anagnostopulos, said, “Unfortunately not.”

The spokesman also said the patriarchate has been yearning for dialogue with the government in order to work on issues such as establishing a new curriculum.

“The last regulations regarding the school were approved in 1951. The school has been closed for 38 years, so there is nobody in the Ministry of Education to deal with a new curriculum. We would be happy if there was dialogue between Ankara and the patriarchate regarding this issue,” he said.

Turkey closed the school in 1971 during a period of tension with Greece over Cyprus and a crackdown on religious education that also included Muslim religious schools.

In various interviews, Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, has opposed the principle of reciprocity between Greece and Turkey on ethical grounds and said Turkey’s minority community should not pay for the mistakes of others.

EU should be enthusiastic about Turkey’s accession

Erdoğan has rejected suggestions of a loss of enthusiasm and a slowdown in Turkey’s European Union accession process, but said the enthusiasm and will for Turkey’s accession should be mutual.

“It is not enough for us to have unilateral enthusiasm and determination. The same excitement should be present on the other side of the table. Indeed, the present situation, which is perceived as a loss of enthusiasm, is the result of the attitude of some EU member states and their leaders. Some statements, attitudes and propaganda have rebounded in Turkey, gotten reactions and discouraged us. It is correct that Turkey has less excitement about its EU membership, but it is not true that the government has had any loss of enthusiasm or slowdown in that regard,” he said.

Erdoğan recalled that 12 chapters on Turkey’s EU accession negotiation process have been opened -- all of them during his party’s time in government. He added that his government has been working “intensely” on the other chapters.

“Only two chapters can be opened during the [six-month] EU term presidency of each country and conditions which are not appropriate with the spirit of the negotiations are brought forward. In some EU countries, Turkey’s membership becomes a domestic political tool during election campaigns,” he said, adding that despite those discouraging elements, Turkey is heading decisively toward membership and is implementing reforms because they raise standards in the nation.

Asked by Kriter about the rising anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe, particularly in reference to the referendum in Switzerland banning the building of minarets, and its effects on Turkey’s EU quest, Erdoğan said the referendum concerns not only the 1.5-billion strong Muslim world but a wider region. “The European Union is about removing borders. It is about unity despite differences,” he said.

In regards to Turkey’s multifaceted foreign policy and the belief in the EU that Turkey might be seeking alternatives to Europe, Erdoğan said Turkey does not have that luxury.

“We have historic and cultural ties with all countries bordering Turkey; as we share a common geography, we also share common values. We don’t have the luxury of turning our back to the East when we turn to the West. We cannot ignore the South and look at the North,” he said, and added that Turkey’s increasing trade and confidence are a result of its multifaceted foreign policy, which aims at “zero problems with neighbors.” He also said the real problem in this debate is not an axis shift in Turkey’s foreign policy but the problem of continuing with the “status quo in some circles.”

In response to a question regarding the relationship between the EU’s Copenhagen criteria and the government’s democratic initiative aimed at expanding freedom of speech and human rights in the country starting with the Kurdish population, Erdoğan said it is a “national unity and brotherhood project.” He stressed that this is Turkey’s project and it has not been imposed on Turkey by anybody.

“We have two expectations from the process: One is to minimize terrorism and the second is to maximize our democratic standards,” he said. “Just as the reforms we have managed so far have made us closer to the EU, the new process, no doubt, will do the same.”

Reminded of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s words that Turkey will be a member of the EU before 2023, Erdoğan said he focuses on raising standards in Turkey, not on dates. “Our goal is to open as many chapters as possible and continue with this process as quickly as possible.”

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