Greeks of Turkey
Three Documents Describing their Current Condition
and their Problems
A. The Greeks of
(from the “Denying Human Rights and Ethnic Identity” series of Human
The Greek community in Turkey is dwindling, elderly and frightened.
Its population has declined from about 110,000 at the time of the
signing of the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 to about 2,500 today. Its fear
stems from an appalling history of pogroms and expulsions suffered
at the hands of the Turkish government. A Helsinki Watch mission
visited Turkey in October 1991 and found that the government there
continues to violate the human rights of the Greek minority. These
acts include harassment by police; restrictions on free expression;
discrimination in education involving teachers, books and
curriculum; restrictions on religious freedom; limitations on the right
to control charitable institutions; and the denial of ethnic identity.
of these abuses violate international human rights laws and
standards that have been signed or endorsed by the government of
Turkey, including the European Convention on Human Rights and
the Paris Charter.
(0561) 3/92, 64 pp., ISBN 1-56432-056-1, $7.00/£5.95
B. A Diminishing Flock
A long excerpt from an article published April 9, 1994, in
Copyright (1994) & written by Anastasia
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- His footsteps echo loudly in the empty, expansive
hallway. Images of
professors and pupils emerge from the shadows as the monk walks in solitude.
To Father Isaias Simonopetritis, the seminary on the Turkish island of
Istanbul never closed. Yet he knows it has, as he paces where leaders
of the Eastern Orthodox
Church once were groomed.
"It's necessary to have a continuance. Somebody must be a line," says Simonopetritis,
theological school's keeper. "What has been handed to us has been so precious."
"I do get sometimes very frustrated. We're shackled. We can't do what we
The Eastern Orthodox faith -- encompassing Greek, Russian, Romanian and
groups -- was born more than 1,600 years ago in Istanbul. The seat of the
religion remains there,
but its future is unclear in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, where the
permeates everyday life.
Ethnic cleansing gradually has pushed out most Eastern Orthodox, who have
given up on
their homeland amid government restrictions and fundamentalist attacks.
Where once hundreds
of thousands of Greek Orthodox lived, no more than 5,000 remain.
The most apparent restriction is the closing of the theological school,
the greatest threat to the
Eastern Orthodox faith and its leadership. The Turkish government
shut the 150-year-old
seminary in 1971, when it decided religious and ethnic minorities
couldn't run universities or
other institutions of higher learning.
"This is something which is really impermissible," says Archbishop Iakovos,
spiritual leader of
the Eastern Orthodox faith in North and South America. "Education cannot
Religion must be free to exercise its mission. This threat lies there undisturbed,
and no one cares."
In December, the World Council of Churches sent a letter to the prime minister
asking that the seminary function again. The government hasn't responded.
Unsuccessful appeals to reopen the school leave in question the future
of the Ecumenical
Patriarchate in Istanbul, where the Eastern Orthodox Church officially
settled in 325 A.D. and
where the spiritual headquarters of 300 million faithful remains.
In the past year, there have been other indications that this religion
is unwelcome in Turkey.
Local elections on March 27 indicate that Muslim fundamentalists are gaining
popularity. The (Islamist) Welfare Party won 22 mayoral races out of 61
cities across Turkey,
including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. The 22 victories were twice
as many as the nearest
total for any other party.
Following the elections, [....] [a] few Molotov cocktails [..] were
planted in the Ecumenical
Patriarchate compound, nestled within a concentration of Muslim extremists.
At least one bomb
went off, but no one was hurt, according to reports. Someone also wrote
Christians/Islamic Up" outside the Patriarchate's gate.
Vandals last year desecrated a cemetery where 10,000 Greeks were buried,
tombs and scattering the remains of five corpses.
And a homemade bomb crashed through the window of one Greek school; at
Greeks guarded the front of the building to keep a bulldozer from demolishing
Greeks weren't always treated this way. As late as 1920, there were more
than 100,000 Greeks
in what is now called Istanbul. As political conflicts arose between Turkey
and Greece, the
numbers dropped drastically. By 1970, that number dwindled to 30,000.
Official counts show 5,000 Greeks in Turkey now, but some say the number
is perhaps half
that. Ninety-eight percent of the 59.6 million people in Turkey are
"There's still that Turkish or Muslim element that wants all minorities
to leave the land," says
Deacon Tarasios Antonopoulos, 37, at the Patriarchate. "It's a systematic
way to eliminate
minorities. There's no security for tomorrow."
Antonopoulos' deep faith took him from Texas to Turkey three years ago
to learn the roots of
his religion. He leaves the country every three months to renew his passport
because it's difficult
for Greeks to become citizens.
"We just want to be left alone, with speech, education and religious freedom,"
he says. "That
all might be written in the constitution, but it's not practiced."
A LONG TRADITION
The history of Istanbul extends long before the time of Jesus Christ. The
city of Byzantium--
later named Constantinople, then Istanbul -- was built by Greeks in 657
B.C. After the fall
of Rome in the fifth century, Constantinople was the capital of the
Byzantine Empire, the
"New Rome," for 1,000 years. Constantine the Great was the first
Christian ruler, making the
The city fell in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, who ruled a vast empire for
more than 400 years.
After Turkey's defeat in World War I, the Republic of Turkey was declared
in October 1923.
Istanbul, stretching across 98 square miles, straddles both sides of the
Bosporus strait, which
separates Europe from Asia. Once the country's capital before the modern
established, Istanbul remains the largest Turkish city where many
remaining Greeks live.
Some Byzantine-style Eastern Orthodox churches still stand in Istanbul,
many used as mosques
or museums. Where once hundreds of Greek Orthodox priests served, only
50 are left in Turkey,
most older than 60.
George Jahos has been a caretaker for 12 years at a smaller church in downtown
nine people attend Sunday services. Old icons adorn the 114-year-old holy
place, where a faint
scent of incense hangs near the altar. "Here in Turkey, we are finished,"
says Jahos, 60.
In nearby Fener, a section of Istanbul, is the Ecumenical Patriarchate,
a compound behind
concrete walls and iron gates that is the center of the Eastern Orthodox
Church. Anyone serving
there, including the patriarch, must be a Turkish citizen.
"We are accustomed to living in more or less severe situations," says Ecumenical
Greeks and other minorities still encounter difficulties in day-to-day
dealings with government
employees. But in the past few years, top Turkish officials have changed
their attitude toward
the Patriarchate because they want the country to be part of the European
[Union] and want to
show that minorities are treated well, Bartholomew speculates. Government
officials often greet
him at airports and offer him special luncheons.
"The Turkish government is sensitive to accusations that it is letting
fundamentalists gain more
power in Turkey," says Iakovos, 82, who was born on a Turkish island and
now lives in New
Bartholomew, 53, who became the spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox
religion in October
1991, says Eastern Orthodox hierarchs must play a visible role internationally.
The world is opening, such as the former Soviet Union, where most Christians
Orthodox. In the United States alone, there are about 5 million Eastern
As the faith is more well-known, there could be greater global awareness
of the Greek Orthodox
situation in Turkey, adds Bartholomew.
Although many Greeks in Turkey say they have no future there, Bartholomew
and other high
priests hope the religion can remain strong in its homeland.
"We will not give even one inch of our history," says Iakovos. "If God
wills that we are
eradicated from there, it will be done -- but not because the Turks did
Many Greeks in Turkey fear speaking out. Still, they strive for religious
freedom, says Iakovos.
He and other high Orthodox priests strongly believe that the theological
school must reopen to
maintain centuries-old traditions.
The Monastery of the Holy Trinity with the Theological School of Halki
-- the [...] Greek
name of the island of Heybeliada -- rests on a hill's summit in the
center of the Princes Islands.
The monastery was established more than 1,180 years ago and was expanded
in 1844 to
accommodate the theological school. It was an institution where Eastern
attended classes. Nearly 2,000 students graduated from there, with 120
students in the school at
any one time.
For the past 23 years, candidates have been sent to the University of Salonika
in Greece. Most
stay there after completing their studies, contributing to a shortage of
Orthodox clergy in
"It's not easy to find candidates to ordain. These are negative consequences
of the elimination
of our people," Bartholomew says, sitting at his desk in Istanbul.
A small icon of Jesus hangs from a heavy chain around his neck. A painting
of modern Turkey's
founder -- Mustafa Kemal Atatürk -- hangs on a nearby wall.
In the background, daily Muslim religious chanting carries over loudspeakers.
"It is a problem to see the diminution of our flock, which creates practical
Bartholomew says. "We put our future in the hands of our Lord. We have
full confidence of our
FULFILLING A DREAM
Eastern Orthodox patriarchs and archbishops, including Bartholomew, attended
school, with 55,000 volumes of Byzantine manuscripts and books, some
dating to the
1500s. "Each book has a history, a past," seminary caretaker Simonopetritis
touching a book dated 1562. He reads aloud in Latin from the worn,
brown pages. The next
generation of Eastern Orthodox leaders, he says, won't come from a common
pool of clergy.
"There has to be a central powerhouse," says Simonopetritis, 45. "It secures
oneness of mind, with the hierarchs from here."
He has lived on the island for nearly four years. Heybeliada, in the Marmara
Sea, is less than an
hour's boat ride from Istanbul.
Villas, small peaks, pine-covered slopes, horse-drawn carriages and outdoor
predominate. About 60 Greeks live on the densely populated island. Only
the military and
police are allowed cars. Most people walk.
Simonopetritis, born in Wimbledon, England, was assigned to the seminary
by the Patriarchate.
He keeps the place alive, poring over ancient writings and directing visitors.
He speaks Turkish,
Russian, Greek and English.
"It's my daydream, the school being reopened and giving good fruits to
the church," he says. So
he waits, patiently. Everything is perfectly maintained and in place,
down to the chalk for the
"We need fresh blood in the body of our church," Bartholomew says. "We
cannot be isolated
C."Dwindling, Elderly and Frightened?"
The Greek Minority in Turkey
Athens, January 31, 2000
"'The Greek community is dying and it is not a natural
death,' a middle-aged Greek man told Helsinki Watch in
Istanbul in October1991. Helsinki Watch meetings
with other Greeks in Istanbul and with Greeks in Athens confirmed
his statement. The Greek community in Istanbul
today is dwindling, elderly and frightened. Their fearfulness is
related to an appalling history of pogroms and
expulsions that they have suffered at the hands of the Turkish
governement. As a result of these acts, the Greek
population in Turkey has declined from about 110,000 at the time of
the signing of the Lausanne Treaty in 1923 to about
2,500 [in 1991].
(...) Helsinki Watch has reported on various aspect
of human rights in Turkey sincce 1982. Not since our first report
have we encountered so many people who were afraid
to talk to us, or who would talk only anonymously. This is the
first report we have issued on Turkey in many years
in which we have had to disguise the identity of almost every
person who talked with Helsinki Watch. Even in
Greece, members of the community of the community of Greeks in
Athens who had emigrated from Turkey did not want
their names used for fear of reprisals against them or their
families by the Turkish government.
Greeks in Istanbul who met with Helsinki Watch looked
over their shoulders apprehensively, afraid their
conversations were being observed. A principal
of a Greek school continually asked a teacher to lower her voice as
she described problems of the Greek children. A
well dressed, middle-class businessman shook with fright as he
related his difficulties and fears. Some Greeks
who were asked by intermediaries to meet with us refused. Interviews
with Greeks willing to talk were arranged in secretive,
Officials of the Istanbul branch of the Turkish
Human Rights Association report that in their experience the Greek
community is more fearful than the Kurds or the
Armenians. These officials say that they have tried to support the
Greek community's rights, but find the Greeks unwilling
to complain publicly. They also report that when human
rights activists have tried to visit Greek homes,
Greeks have been unwilling to admit them to their homes to discuss
human rights problems, and have only talked briefly
with tem through chained doors."
That was the introduction (pp. 1-2) to the report
"Denying Human Rights and Ethnic Identity: the Greeks of Turkey"
Helsinki Watch (HW) researched in October 1991
and published in March 1992. Eight years later, Greek Helsinki
Monitor (GHM), literally on the eve of the EU Helsinki
summit decision to grant Turkey candidacy status, found that
some progress was made, but the situation of Turkey's
Greeks was far from satisfactory. Certainly, there is less fear
than before, though minority leaders share the
belief that their moves are carefully watched and their telephones are
For example, the "principal of a Greek school" mentioned
in the HW report paid then a price for having talked to the
human rights group. Now, though, he dared go to
a major human rights conference held in Istanbul on Human Rights
Day, under the sponsorship of the Council of Europe
and the International Helsinki Federation. There, among other
things, he was the first minority Greek to speak
at length with Turkish human rights activists, including Akin Birdal,
the President of the same Human Rights Association
which had stated to HW that Greeks were unwilling not only to
complain publicly but also to merely talk to them.
One can hope that he will not face any consequences for that.
Although Constantinople Greeks' diaspora associations
were saying in Athens that no one was willing to talk to
GHM, and the Greek Consulate in Istanbul was giving
the same impression, there appeared to be no such problem
any longer, though some minority people were still
cautious. After all, just a few days before, a mutli-hour debate on
a private Turkish television station dealt with
the injustices of Turkey towards its "religious" minorities (including
Greeks). While there was a record audience for
the movie "Salkim Hanim's Necklace," depicting how the notorious
"Wealth Tax" introduced in 1942 "served another
purpose than to simply help restore the Treasury's depleted
resources. It was also to further the aim of 'Turkifying'
the nation that began in the 1930's." The preceding quote was
from an equally remarkable dossier in "Turkish
Probe," the 12/12/1999 Sunday supplement of English language
"Turkish Daily News."
All Greek minority leaders, including the Patriarch
were in favor of Turkey's EU candidacy, for the same
reasons that most civil society and human rights
activists supported it: it would force Turkey to modernize its archaic
and authoritarian political system, a change that
can only be beneficial to minorities and democrats. In fact, one Greek
told GHM that the last time "Turkey" [i.e. the
Ottoman Empire] was in a similar way admitted as a European country,
after the Crimean War in the mid-nineteenth century,
it introduced far reaching reforms to install for the first time a
state of law. Had the Patriarchate had today the
privileges it had acquired then, it would have been very happy, he
However, there is nothing rosy about the Greek community
in Istanbul. It is further dwindling: GHM estimated there
must be some 1,000-1,500 persons left (the community
itself gives an estimate of 1,500-2,000). Schools have some 260
pupils in all twelve grades, of which almost one
third are Christian Arab rather than Christian Greek children. Turkish
authorities consider both communities as "Rum,"
i.e. Greek Orthodox. Greeks cannot in fact call themselves just
Greeks ("Ynanli" in Turkish) and claim they are
an ethno-national rather than a religious minority. Just like Turks in
Greek Thrace cannot call themselves just Turks
and claim an ethno-national minority status, as they have to be merely
a religious "Muslim" minority.
The situation with the Patriarchate is equally unsatisfactory.
In reality, Patriarch Bartholomeos is respected as the
spiritual leader of some 200 million Orthodox around
the world, as "first among equals" of the five traditional Eastern
Orthodox Patriarchs. However, Turkey recognizes
him as the mere religious leader of the Greek Orthodox
community within its borders. As a result of that
dispute, and unbeknown to almost everyone outside, the
Patriarchate has no legal status, and hence no
property. The Patriarch himself described to GHM that he is like the
Catholic Archbishop of Athens. Indeed, Greek authorities
recognize only the Catholic diocese of St. Denis, on the
grounds of which is the building of the Catholic
Archdiocese. Likewise, the recent renovation permit for the
Patriarchate described it as a building within
the land of the St. George church, itself a legally functioning foundation
("vakif"), but no ownership was mentioned. Turkey
may have no problem granting the Patriarchate the status of a
Turkish foundation; but the Patriarchate demands
a sui generis international law personality reflecting its
international posture and also protecting him from
the ramifications of Turkish minority policies, that minority
foundations have paid dearly.
The Turkish authorities' intention to limit the
jurisdiction of the Patriarchate became evident in Easter 1996. On 14
April, Patriarchical Bishop of Laodiceia Charalambos
Sofroniadis went to a Bulgarian Orthodox church, invited, as
often in the past, to lead the Liturgy of Love
("Agapi"). However, that day, the church's Bulgarian priest (ordained in
1989 by that same Bishop) and a church councilor
told the Bishop he was unwelcome. Reportedly, the congregation
did not agree and the liturgy went on with the
participation of all clergymen. Subsequently, though, charges were
pressed against the Bishop who, on 15 January 1997,
was convicted to a suspended sentence of 5 months in prison and
a 250,000 Turkish pound fine, by the First Instance
Court of the Fatih district in Greater Istanbul. He was found guilty
of "disrupting religious duties" (article 175.1
of the Penal Code). The Supreme Court twice confirmed the verdict
rejecting the appeal and then the cassation.
The Turkish state's argument was that the Bulgarian
Church had split in 1870 from the Patriarchate, which was
correct. However, that schism was overturned in
1945, when a bilateral agreement between the two Churches put
Bulgarian Orthodox churches under Greek Orthodox
jurisdiction in Istanbul (and Greece) and Greek Orthodox
churches under Bulgarian Orthodox jurisdiction
in Bulgaria. Turkey chooses to ignore that agreement in a clear
interference in the internal religious affairs
of these Churches. Besides the court's verdict, the Patriarch was once
summoned by the Istanbul Prefect to be advised
not to include Bulgarians in his concerns. The only other time he was
summoned since he came to that post in 1991, was
to be advised not to use the term "Ecumenical."
That verdict was not appealed to the European Court
of Human Rights, as many other cases that probably violate the
European Convention of Human Rights. Minority leaders,
when asked, claimed that, even if they were vindicated in
Strasbourg, Turkey would not respect the verdict
"as it never does," while it may harass them further as a reaction.
Clearly, like so many other ones, this minority
leadership is misinformed, and consequently misguided with no solid
knowledge of human rights principles and practices
in the late 1990s.
Other obvious infringements of international norms
relate to extended and valuable property owned by the minority
foundations in Greater Istanbul. A 1974 Council
of State ruling has allowed Turkish authorities to seize all property
that was not declared by the minority foundations
in a 1936 registration. All acquisitions since, through donations or
purchases, have been considered illegal, as (Greek,
Armenian, Jewish) minority foundations were considered "foreign"
-itself unacceptable if not insulting-and therefore
had no right to acquire property in Turkey. So, these properties
should be returned to the previous owner and, if
she or he, or the heirs, cannot be located (which happens in most
cases) the property is seized by the state. Since
1974, hundreds of cases have been going to the courts and every few
months one piece of property is confiscated from
one of these "religious" communities. To make matters worse,
Istanbul authorities usually refuse to give inheritance
certificates to Greeks who live abroad, obviously in the hope
that one day the related property could also be
confiscated. While they have allowed only once, in 1991, the election
of the boards of the Greek foundations -in ways
that often produced results favorable to the authorities.
The other major problem, besides the property issue,
is the limitations to the Patriarchate's clergy that risk making it
very difficult to staff that venerable institution
in the next generation. Only Turkish citizens are allowed to become
Bishops or Patriarchs, and Turkey refuses to grant
Turkish citizenship to Orthodox clergymen who want to settle in
Istanbul. In 1995, a priest with French citizenship
was forced to leave the country in a rather humiliating way,
according to Patriarchate sources. At the same
time, the traditional theological seminary preparing new clergy, the
Theological School of Halki at Heybeliada, was
forced to close in 1971, when all non-Turkish universities were
Turkified (e.g. Roberts College became Bogazici
University). The Patriarchate had no guarantees it could control the
seminary if it became a Turkish educational institution.
It was also full of well-founded suspicions towards Turkish
authorities at the time, since they were enforcing
a law for universities on the seminary even though they had
demoted it from a university to a training school
in 1964. So, the Patriarchate opted to close the seminary. Nowadays,
Turks reportedly want to allow the seminary to
function as a department of a soon-to-be-established Faculty of
Theology at Istanbul University. The Patriarchate
authorities are legitimately asking for guarantees about admission
criteria, administration, and curriculum so that
it becomes a true seminary open to Orthodox from Turkey and
abroad, who will then be allowed to join the Patriarchate,
acquire Turkish citizenship and eventually become Bishops
or Patriarchs. The fear is that this be merely
a step towards an eventual takeover by the state of the seminary and its
The recent Greek-Turkish rapprochement has had some
beneficial influence on minority education: for the first time
exchange Greek teachers were allowed to come from
Greece at the beginning of the year, while the two countries
have agreed after many decades to introduce modern
Greek schoolbooks. Similar improvements have been recorded
for the Turkish minority in Greece. Maybe now both
communities can admit that they also need special education
material and boosting classes for those whose mother
tongue is not Greek or Turkish (Pomaks and Roma in Greece,
Arabs in Turkey), which will improve the quality
of education of all children in the corresponding mixed schools.
More generally, it is perhaps a rare opportunity
for the two governments to face up to reality. With the help of human
rights NGOs, they need to sit down and try to solve
the thorny issues of the various "Lausanne Treaty" minorities, in
a way that will respect both that Treaty and all
other international human rights norms, that EU members -current or
potential- must uphold. Minority leaders themselves
can help if they start turning more towards each other (as well as
NGOs and inter-governmental organizations) rather
than towards the kin states for support.
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