A Historic Judgment by the European Court
By YAVUZ BAYDAR , Zaman 31/3/08
Mar 31, 2008 - 10:59:17 AM
Greece, a minority not very well known abroad is also hard to handle, even by
its free press. I am referring to the Turkish minority in the Western Thrace
region, located in the northeastern part of Greece. There are around 150,000 of
these people; they speak Turkish, are Muslims (mainly Sunnis, a few Alevis) and
are remnants of the Ottoman Empire -- similar to the Greek minority in Turkey
who speak Greek and are Orthodox Christians.
One socio-tragic fact of the implosion of the empire and the
nation-building process first for the Greeks and then the Turks was the large
population exchange agreed upon by the Greek and Turkish governments in the
early 1920s. Tens of thousands of Turks and Greeks left their respective
homelands and settled in their new, "ethnically identical"
territories. The eastern Balkans were largely emptied of native Turks and
Anatolia lost its native Greeks.
But some remained, mainly in ?stanbul and Western Thrace
(Komothini and Xanthi regions). The status of these minorities was determined
by the Lausanne Treaty, which strictly defined them as "non-Muslims"
(in Turkey) and "Muslims" (in Greece).
The knowledge and demands of ethnic identities were thereby
shelved. As "Turk" or "Rum," they never existed as such in
official documents or rhetoric. Even worse, they had become hostages of
never-ending hostile policies, the tit-for-tat tactics of Ankara and Athens,
suffering deeply as human beings after having been denied of their basic rights.
Their story is told in a heart wrenching manner in a wonderfully bitter
Greek-Turkish movie titled "A Touch of Spice," a film that I highly
In the past 80 years we have witnessed a constant erosion of
the Greek minority in Turkey (due to suppression, now down to some 5,000,
mostly elderly) and Turkish minority members in Greece (over 65.000 of them had
been denied Greek citizenship until Greece abolished a repressive
One part of the problem was a constant denial of recognition
of Western Thrace minority members as "Turks."
Just as the Turkish press once did with state rhetoric, not
identifying Kurds as "Kurds," the Greek press to a large extent still
refers to Turks of Western Thrace as "Muslims."
But now this is about to change by way of a historical
judgment by the European Court of Human Rights last Thursday.
Based on complaints of Turkish women and a group of Xanthi
Turks, the court ruled that Greece had not respected either of the former's
Tourkiki Enosi Xanthis was founded in 1927 under the name
"House of the Turkish Youth of Xanthi." Its purpose was to preserve
and promote the culture of the Turks of Western Thrace. In 1983, however, it
was prohibited from using the term "Turkish" on any document, stamp
In 1986 the Greek courts dissolved the association on the
grounds that its aims ran counter to public policy. The Thrace Court of Appeals
upheld that judgment; it found that the applicant association was not in
conformity with the Treaty of Lausanne and that some of the members presented
the Muslim minority of Thrace as a "strongly oppressed minority." The
appeal was finally dismissed in February 2005.
In 2001 seven women in the region founded the Cultural
Association of Turkish Women of the Region of Rodopi. Its aim was to create a
"meeting place for women of the county of Rodopi" and to work for
"social, moral and spiritual improvement and establish bonds of sisterhood
between its members."
But the Greek courts dismissed a request for registration of
the association because its title might "mislead the public"
regarding the origin of its members. The court reiterated that in the Treaty of
Lausanne only a Muslim minority, not a Turkish minority, had been recognized in
the region of Western Thrace. An appeal was dismissed in April 2005.
Both Turkish minority groups thought these cases were in
violation of articles 11 (freedom of assembly and association) and 14
(prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The European Court of Human Rights agreed.
The following are some excerpts from the judgment:
"The court observed that even supposing that the real
aim of the association had been to promote the idea that there was an ethnic
minority in Greece, this could not be said to constitute a threat to democratic
society. There was nothing in the statute to indicate that its members
advocated the use of violence or of undemocratic or unconstitutional
"The court observed that even supposing that the real
aim of the applicant association had been to promote the idea that there was an
ethnic minority in Greece, this could not be said to constitute a threat to
democratic society. It reiterated that the existence of minorities and
different cultures in a country was a historical fact that a democratic society
had to tolerate and even protect and support according to the principles of
"The court considered that freedom of association involved
the right of everyone to express, in a lawful context, their beliefs about
their ethnic identity. However shocking and unacceptable certain views or words
used might appear to the authorities, their dissemination should not
automatically be regarded as a threat to public policy or to the territorial
integrity of a country."
As a human rights observer, I salute the applicants for
their civic courage. May this be a lesson for both Greece and Turkey, suffering
from a deep "ethnophobia."
But there is apparently a problem now: The Lausanne Treaty
contradicts some parts the European Convention on Human Rights. It is,
basically, too "outdated" in the context of identifying ethnicities
today. It is used as a pretext for denial.
Source: Ocnus.net 2008