People & Power

Western Thrace, Contested Space: The Turks of northeast Greece

We investigate claims of discrimination against the ethnic Turkish minority in the Greek province of Western Thrace.

Greece has a proud reputation as the birthplace of democracy, of government by the people, for the people.

But to the ethnic Turkish minority of Thrace in the country’s northeast, who say they have suffered decades of discrimination from the state, that is not how it often seems.

We sent filmmaker Glenn Ellis to investigate.

Filmmaker’s view

By Glenn Ellis

“The main problem here is denial of our identity. We define ourselves as Turkish, which we undoubtedly are. However, the Greek state doesn’t accept this fact. They talk about Greek Muslims, a definition we will never accept.”

Cidgem Asafoglu told me this in her office in the heart of Komotini, the capital of Greece’s Rhodope prefecture. It sits in an ancient region known as Thrace, which shares borders with southern Bulgaria and western Turkey. Cidgem is the leader of Keif, the Party of Friendship Peace and Equality, which represents the Turkish minority in Thrace, numbering about 150,000.

Keif came top in Rhodope and adjacent Xanthi prefecture in last year’s general election – much to the annoyance of the Greek government. Some months later, outgoing Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos visited the region declaring: “Under the Treaty of Lausanne, the Muslim minority who live in Thrace is a religious minority and not an ethnic one”. He was referring to a 1923 pact forged in the aftermath of World War I, which ceded the region to Greece but which was also supposed to guarantee the rights of its ethnic Turks – something that Keif and its leader are eager to uphold.

“We don’t believe that defining ourselves as Turkish is a crime or a sin,” says Cidgem. “We are Turkish and continue being Turkish.” The problems is, with relations between the neighbouring countries in something of a trough right now, such sentiments do not sit very well with rising nationalist sentiment elsewhere in Greece.

I had come here with a small crew to investigate allegations the ethnic Turkish minority in Thrace have been making for decades – that they are routinely discriminated against by the Greek state. But I was also curious to find out more about the strong cultural traditions in this remote corner of Europe. It certainly felt very Turkish.

As I headed to my next appointment, I passed throngs of women in headscarves speaking Turkish and street cafes clustered with bearded men sipping Turkish coffee or sucking on hookah pipes. To outward appearances, all seemed calm and well ordered – but Cidgem’s interview stayed in my mind. She had told me she’d received numerous death threats for demanding to be recognised as an ethnically Turkish Greek citizen.

Between assimilation and integration

So what form, I wanted to know, did this discrimination actually take? Throughout our trip, we were given many examples – from inadequate political representation and constraints on press freedom to education and religion.

Take the case of muftis, I was told. The region has traditionally elected its own muftis – legal experts empowered to give rulings on religious matters. Ibrahim Serif was one such, elected as Komotini’s mufti with a resounding 90 percent of the vote. But this does not seem to have cut much ice with the Greek state which had directly appointed its own mufti in Komotini, in line with recently adopted protocols. Unsurprisingly the majority of Turks refuse to recognise the appointed muftis preferring those they have chosen themselves, like Serif who we met at a packed mosque for Friday prayers.

On the way, we had passed the appointed mufti’s mosque which looked deserted. Serif, a dignified man with a gentle disposition, told me he had just been sentenced to 80 days in prison for attending Friday prayers at a nearby village. “I just attended the prayer, that’s all. I am exposed to the same harassment constantly.” Serif says he is not alone in feeling the pressure of the state and that, for many, it starts very early on in life.

Last year the Greek Education Ministry shut down five Turkish-language schools, bringing the total number of schools closed to 65 in just eight years. In the village of Kalamokastro we met Sezer Riza who took us to the village’s school, now closed, where generations of his family had studied.

“There is a very thin line between assimilation and integration,” he said, “when children do not learn their culture, they gradually lose their native language and disappear in society, in Greek society. This culture will cease to exist while this process continues.”

The government has cited lack of pupil demand for the school closures, but in Xanthi at least there are actually too many Turkish-speaking students for the number of places available and a policy of splitting up the school day into two shifts has had to be introduced to fit them in.

It was in Xanthi where we also met Cengiz Omer, editor of Millet, the town’s Turkish-language newspaper. Cengiz recalled one of the many times he had been called to the police station. “They asked me why I am writing that the minority is a Turkish minority. I told them, our aim is to make our minority voice heard. We are trying to be their voice. And the police officer told me if I continue, as I am walking outside, maybe someone will break my head.”

Cengiz has recently been sentenced to 15 months in prison for questioning the notion of state-appointed muftis in an editorial. “We can’t say there is freedom of expression here in Western Thrace,” he explained. “This is one of our biggest problems.”

Under suspicion

We were eager to find out more about what lay behind the stories we were hearing – not least because we wanted to put them to the authorities in Athens and get a response. But it was clear that our own travels around the area were beginning to attract attention.

Almost from the moment we began filming in Thrace we were followed by unmarked police cars, stopped several times and interrogated about our movements. We had nothing to hide, of course, but it was an unusual situation for journalists to face in an otherwise open European democracy. Then things got worse.

We had decided to travel south from Western Thrace to the Greek island of Kos where, we were told, the Turkish minority is under even tighter restrictions. On the very morning we arrived – actually within minutes of setting up the camera to film some innocuous landscapes – we were arrested on suspicion of espionage.

We were in a public space, yet we were close to the island’s marina, and so perhaps we had unknowingly broken some local prohibition on taking photographs of the yachts and pleasure craft in the tiny harbour. But to be accused of spying seemed an absurd overreaction – not least because I had just been in contact with the prime minister’s office in Athens, trying to arrange an interview.

Our attempts to explain and apologise were bushed aside and we were taken away to the local coastguard station for questioning. Someone, somewhere had got it into their heads that some straightforward television production work posed a threat to Greek national security.

After a night in detention our lawyer managed to secure our release at a hastily arranged court hearing – at which we again profusely apologised – and we were able to leave the island on the next flight back to Athens.

Then, having been tipped off that our materials were about to be seized, we left Greece without delay – luckily, with our footage intact. Frustratingly, we never did manage to put our questions to the Greek government – despite our repeated requests for interviews with various ministries.

But it had been a sobering experience in a modern European country that prides itself as being the birthplace of democracy in the heart of the European Union. It also gave us something of an insight into what the Turks of Western Thrace say they have been experiencing for so many years.


Editor’s note:

Subsequent to the broadcast of this episode, Alexandros Yennimatas, a spokesperson for the Greek government – which had hitherto declined requests to various ministries for an interview about the issues raised by the film – wrote to us in response. The views expressed in this statement do not reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance, but we are posting them here in the interests of balance.

Statement from Greek government:

Though Mr Ellis accurately indicates that the existence of the minority in Thrace is the legal outcome of the 1923 Peace Treaty of Lausanne, he seemingly ignores that Article 45 of this very same Treaty clearly and unreservedly qualifies this community as Muslim and he persists in referring to it, erroneously, as ‘Turkish’. The same qualification is adamantly adopted by Article 2 of the January 1923 Convention of Exchange of Populations. A copy of both these international agreements is at your disposal, should you need them. As Turkey’s President Erdogan has publicly acknowledged, during his last state visit to Greece in December 2017, the minority is composed by various constituent parts, namely Greek citizens of Turkish, Pomak and Roma origin. Given the above legal, factual and political reality, the reporter’s rendering of the situation lacks impartiality and distorts the reality: he refers to 150,000 “ethnic Turks” living in Greece, thus committing a serious injustice to the two other ethnic groups.

To add insult to injury, Glen [sic] Ellis claims that the Muslim minority in Thrace suffers from inadequate political representation and constraints on freedoms of press, education and religion. One wonders why the said documentary fails to mention that three Muslim Members of the Hellenic Parliament come from the Muslim minority, during the 2019-2023 legislature. Furthermore, over 400 Muslim municipal and regional counsellors participate in local administration structures in Thrace and they co-shape policies that directly affect the lives of all Greek citizens in the region. Again, tens of minority newspapers, websites and radio stations daily inform minority citizens in Thrace. All of the above prove that the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all Greek citizens by the Greek Constitution, including the right to political representation, the freedom of expression and freedom of the press, are in effect fully safeguarded in Thrace, as they are in the rest of the country. Education-wise, Glen Ellis again failed to mention that in an area of approximately 14,000 square kilometres, more than 120 minority schools operate and by far and large cover the needs of minority students. Additionally, minority high schools and Koranic schools convey the image of a complete minority syllabus and cursus for minority students. The temporary suspension of the functioning of some minority schools in the countryside was a direct consequence of the decreased number of students. In an effort to improve schooling conditions, these students are incorporated in other minority schools where they are capable of interacting with a larger number of fellow minority pupils.

On freedom of religion, we have to underline that in Thrace there are more than 300 mosques, and over 270 of them properly function for religious services.

With regard to the designation of muftis, one wonders whether Glen Ellis is aware how religious leaders are appointed in the Muslim world. Do Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Turkey enable their citizens to elect their religious officials? I am afraid that Glen Ellis’ report is against the basic premises of the Islamic faith. Greece, in full compliance with centuries old Islamic tradition, has enacted a very respectful legislation for the appointment of Muftis, which allowed to significant religious leaders to occupy these positions. An undeniable evidence of the wise guidance Greek Muftis were able to provide to their community is that not a single member of the Muslim minority has been recruited by fundamentalist groups in the Middle East or elsewhere. And, while putting forward arguments on Greece’s purported religious discrimination, Glen Ellis also fails to inform Al Jazeera’s viewers that Greece is the only EU country that has deemed appropriate to allow the implementation of Muslim religious law – the Shariah – in civil court cases, provided both litigants agree. Expectedly, the European Court of Human Rights acknowledged this policy “in view of the modern identity of the inhabitants of Europe” as an evidence of “respect of multiculturalism in today’s Europe” (Molla Sali v Greece, 20452/14, ECHR, Judgement, paragraph 111).

In light of the above, it remains clear that Greece proudly continues the tradition of being the cradle of democracy.

In closing, the undeniable reality of history and numbers should suffice to demonstrate that the Muslim minority in Thrace enjoys every freedom and right guaranteed to European citizens, therefore it is thriving and facing the future with confidence within a modern European country. On the contrary, unfortunately not as much can be said about the Greek minority which remained in Turkey in effect of the Lausanne Convention. Due to targeted aggressive policies of successive Turkish governments over many decades, the number of Greeks living in Turkey dwindled dramatically, from hundreds of thousands to a mere few thousands today. A fact that Mr Ellis also omitted, conveniently, to mention.