Monday, July 19, 2004


The recent Foreign Correspondent report on the Muslims of Thrace aired on the ABC left much to be desired. If anything, it came across as a naive and clumsy attempt to rake up past animosity in order to somehow impugn the Greek nation and present it as a state that impinges upon the rights of its non-Orthodox Christian inhabitants at a key moment, just before the staging of the Olympic Games.
Some of the assertions made by the program are undoubtedly true. There is a sizeable Muslim majority in Thrace, which regardless of its origins, is oriented towards Turkey. This minority has been discriminated against in the past in various ways. However, the program tried to magnify the extent of such discrimination as well as to cleverly elude the task of explaining how such discrimination came to be, in order to place it in context.
The fact of the matter is that while Thracian Muslims have been viewed with suspicion by mainstream Greeks, since the 1923 treaty of Lausanne, which normalised the relations between Muslim and Christian minorities in Greece and Turkey, Greece’s Muslim population has increased and flourished. With few exceptions, Thracian Muslims are afforded education in their own language and religious autonomy. Thracian Muslims have even become members of the Greek Parliament, such as the colourful Ahmet Sadik. That “persecuted” Thracian Muslims actively take part in the Greek political process is something that escaped the researches of the program, to their discredit.
The fate of the Greeks and indeed the Christians remaining in Turkey has not been so easy and this is also something that the program failed to point out. Rather than increase, the Greek population has dwindled from an estimated 500,000 in 1923 to 2,000 today. That is a vast number of people. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks fled Constantinople after the pogrom of 1955 where mobs targeted Greek businesses, burnt homes, smashed tombstones, defiled and burnt churches and raped Greek women. Greeks were subjected to such persecution that in the 40’s Seferis, visiting the city, was slapped by a Turkish gendarme for speaking Greek in the streets. I noticed while staying among Greeks in that city that they are so afraid that they still refuse to speak Greek in public. This is not the case in Thrace among the Muslims who can speak Turkish with absolute freedom from fear.
Greek education was heavily curtailed and taken over by a Turkish education ministry dedicated to the extirpation of references to Greece from the schoolbooks. At the same time the Varlik Vergisi and other hidden taxes served to expropriate most of the wealth from the affluent Constantinopolitan Greek community. Until recently, the Oecumenical Patriarchate has been the scene for foiled bomb blasts and other acts of terrorism, including threats by government officials that the Patriarch will be expelled. In the seventies, democratic Turkey closed the religious school of Halki and refuses to this day to open it. On the island of Imvros, the autonomy of its Greek inhabitants as set out by the treaty of Lausanne was never respected. Instead, an open prison was founded on the island, hardened criminals being given carte blanche to rape and terrorise the Greek inhabitants to the extent where save for a few elderly people, most of the Greeks have fled. Similarly, regular Turkish raids on the Assyrian Christian communities in the Tur Abdin have reduced this once flourishing monastic community to almost nothing.
Surely it is immature not to understand any discrimination of Greeks or Muslims as a regrettable outcome of Greco-Turkish politics since 1923. Indeed, the 1955 Constantinople pogrom seems to have been a reaction to Cypriot calls for enosis with Greece, while allegations that Greece has in the past removed Greek citizenship from Thracian Muslims who studied in Turkey must be seen in the context of a response to Turkey removing Turkish citizenship from fleeing Greeks. There are thousands of Constantinopolitan, Imvriot and Tenedian Greeks living in Australia who have lost their citizenship as a result of them coming to Australia. A mature report would have drawn parallels and made the necessary and obvious conclusion: that hatred breeds hatred and that people in glass houses should never throw stones…
Indeed, the report as to the rights of the Thracian Muslims comes as a surprise given that both Greece and Turkey have made grandiose moves to better their relationship and both peoples are optimistic about their co-operative future. It was totally unnecessary then, to present what actually is, yesterday’s news.
The timing of the report, as well as the clumsy attempt to link the Muslims of Thrace with the question of the religious observance of migrant Muslims in Athens seems to make the whole report suspect. One cannot shake the feeling that rather than analyse the difficult acculturation of a diverse range of peoples in what was for at least fifty years a homogenous society, the reporters, in the countdown to the Olympic Games, engaged in another inept attempt to denigrate and discredit Greece.
There is something self-righteous in Australian journalists complaining that the Greek government does not buy the itinerant Muslim workers a mosque when we Greeks in Melbourne, along with other races had to scrimp and save to build our own places of religious observance with the minimum of help from our government. The reporters would do well to remember that it was the tolerance of the Greek monks on Mt Sinai that permitted them to build a mosque in the monastery of St Catherine as early as the 7th century, while Constantinople under the Greeks was the first European city to permit the erection of mosques within its bounds at a time when the crusading West was hell bent upon the destruction of Islam.
The Foreign Correspondent report unfolded itself on the past and stumbled upon the reality that today, there is no persecution of Muslims in Greece. Today, two erstwhile hostile countries are tentatively reaching out to each other in friendship. They do not forget their bloody past, but no longer do they see that past as an insurmountable obstacle. And that is a triumph no blinkered and unsophisticated journalist can sully.


First published in NKEE on 19 July 2004
Republished in GREEK-AUSTRALIAN VEMA July 2004