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January 1999
Vol. 11, No. 1 (D)



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This report examines the situation of the ethnic Turkish minority of Thrace, a region of Greece. It serves as a follow-up to two earlier reports issued by Human Rights Watch, Destroying Ethnic Identity: The Turks of Greece (August 1990) and “Greece: Improvements for Turkish Minority; Problems Remain” (April 1992).

Ethnic Turks have resided in Thrace since at least the fourteenth century, and they are Greek citizens. In 1923, under the Treaty of Lausanne, the Turkish minority of Thrace was granted a wide array of rights to ensure protection of their religion, language, culture, and equality before the law.1 In addition, as Greek citizens, ethnic Turks also enjoy the protection of Greek law, as well as of the European Convention of Human Rights.

Despite such protections, however, ethnic Turks suffer a host of human rights violations. The Greek state has for the most part been unable to accept the fact that one can be a loyal Greek citizen and, at the same time, an ethnic Turk proud of his or her culture and religion. Turks are viewed by the state with suspicion, the strength of which largely reflects the state of Turkish-Greek relations.

Greece’s attitude toward the ethnic Turkish minority is nowhere more evident then in its continued official denial of the Turkish identity of the community. Greece only accepts the existence of a “Muslim” minority in Thrace and aggressively prosecutes and bans organizations and individuals who seek to call themselves “Turkish.” While it is indeed true that much of the minority is of mixed ethnic origins, it overwhelmingly claims an ethnic Turkish identity and wants to be referred to as such. The Greek government points to the Treaty of Lausanne which, it is true, speaks only of a “Muslim minority.” Past state policy, however, negates such a justification. In the early 1950s, during a period of rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, the Greek government itself ordered the use of “Turk” and “Turkish” to refer to the minority, rather than “Muslim.”

A number of discriminatory measures have been enacted either to force ethnic Turks to migrate to Turkey or to disrupt community life and weaken its cultural basis. The most egregious example was Article 19 of the Citizenship Law, which, until it was abolished in 1998, allowed the state to revoke the citizenship of non-ethnic Greeks unilaterally and arbitrarily. Between 1955 and 1998, approximately 60,000 lost their citizenship under the article. As a result of Article 19 and other discriminatory measures, the ethnic Turkish minority today numbers approximately 80-120,000.2 In 1951, forty-seven years ago, the official census reported 112,665. Given an annual 2 percent growth rate, not high for a poorly-educated and rural community, the Turkish minority, using 1951 as a base, would have been expected to number closer to 300,000 today.3

Religion has been another battleground. A 1990 law granted the state wide-ranging powers in appointing the mufti, the community’s religious leader who also serves as an Islamic judge in civil matters. The previous law, in contrast, had allowed the community to elect the muftis. In defiance of the 1990 law, which violates the intent of the Treaty of Lausanne to allow the minority to manage its own religious affairs, the community has continued to elect its religious leaders, who have been prosecuted and imprisoned by Greek authorities. In addition, the repair of mosques is sometimes blocked by state authorities, and those involved in the repair are prosecuted.

The state has also struck at private charitable foundations, known as Vak1flar, that support education and religious institutions. A law passed in 1980 and a presidential decree issued in 1990 effectively transferred management of the Vak1flar from elected committees—a right assured under the Treaty of Lausanne and preceding Greek legislation—to state officials, who were granted an iron hand over budgetary matters. More ominously, the 1980 law struck directly at the financial holdings of the foundations by ordering that any property for which an official deed could not be presented would be confiscated by the state. While innocuous-sounding, the regulation presented insurmountable challenges to foundations that had holdings as old as 500 years.

Human rights violations in the education field affect the largest number of individuals and have done the most to foster the Turkish minority’s relative underdevelopment. Schools are overcrowded and poorly funded compared to those attended by ethnic Greeks. The quality of teachers is low. Ethnic Turks educated in Turkish universities, which the minority believes are the best qualified to teach, have not been hired for a number of years. On the other hand, graduates of the Thessaloniki Pedagogical Academy (EPATH)—the job candidates preferred by the Greek state—are poorly educated and have a weak command of Turkish. Furthermore, community members claim, not without some justification, that the EPATH-trained teachers act as “ideological overseers.” Textbooks are decades out of date because Greece and Turkey have been unable to implement a 1968 protocol that would have allowed each country to supply textbooks to their respective minority. The two Turkish-language high schools can provide only a fraction of the needed places, resulting in a disproportionate drop-out rate. Greek officials fall back on the Treaty of Lausanne, which only obligates them to provide primary education in Turkish, ignoring the fact that Greek law mandates a minimum of nine years of education. State repression takes other forms as well. Members of the ethnic Turkish minority also complain of police surveillance, discrimination in public employment, and restrictions on freedom of expression. Representatives from Human Rights Watch and the Greek Helsinki Monitor were trailed by police operatives in Thrace while conducting research for this report. Only a handful of Turks are employed by the municipal or state bureaucracies, almost always in the most menial tasks. A local journalist known as a community activist has become the subject of several prosecutions in an effort to limit his internationally-protected right to free expression.

Despite continued human rights violations, there have been some major improvements since Human Rights Watch began monitoring the situation in 1990. Several of the most egregious laws, such as those that deprived ethnic Turks of basic rights of property and occupation, have been repealed. Since our 1990 report, ethnic Turks can now buy and sell houses and land, repair houses, obtain car, truck and tractor licenses, and open coffee houses and machine and electrical shops. As noted earlier, the government abolished Article 19 of the Citizenship Law, though not retroactively. Restricted zones along the Bulgarian border inhabited by members of the Turkish minority have been opened up, although only to Greek citizens. There have also been efforts to improve education, such as creating a quota for ethnic Turks in the state university system. Finally, the 1994 decision to allow the election of provincial governors and municipal councils appears to be a positive step. These elected officials appear to be more responsive to the needs of the Turkish minority than their state-appointed predecessors. Unfortunately, the Greek state changed the boundaries of two provinces to prevent the election of an ethnic Turkish or pro-Turkish governor from an exclusively ethnic Turkish election list.4

1 The ethnic Greek minority in Istanbul was granted identical rights under the treaty. 2 Informed outside observers put the number closer to the 80,000 range, while, paradoxically, both the Greek state and the minority community claim upwards of 120,000. 3 In 1923, the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne left some 106,000 ethnic Turks in Thrace. The ethnic Greek minority of Istanbul, also protected under the Treaty of Lausanne, has also shrunk in size because of state discrimination, from 110,000 in 1923 to an estimated 2,500 today. See Denying Human Rights & Ethnic Identity: The Greeks of Turkey, March 1992. 4 Though ethnic Turks ran—and continue to run—on the lists of other Greek parties and have won election to parliament.

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