Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Greece’s recognized Muslim minority make up more than 1 per cent of the Greek population – a figure that does not include hundreds of thousands of undocumented Muslim migrants originating from outside the country – with most concentrated in Western Thrace, the province bordering Turkey. Many identify themselves as Turks, although they are of different origins, including Muslim Roma/Gypsies and Pomaks or Muslim Slavs: previous official estimates have suggested that of around 100,000 members of the Muslim minority, around 50 per cent were Turks, 35 per cent Pomaks and 15 per cent Roma. Pomaks reside mainly in villages in the Rhodope Mountains in Thrace. Their dialects are usually classified as dialects of Bulgarian, although most Pomaks themselves self-identify as Turks, whose welfare is actively promoted by the Turkish government.
Under Greek law, the Muslim minority (including Pomaks) has a right to education in its own language. In practice, however, only Turkish is used. This is due to the Turkish self-identification of the Pomaks, and the fact that this trend was promoted until recently by the Greek authorities (who from 1968 until the 1980s even officially recognized the Pomaks as Turks) in order to distance them from Bulgarians. Minority languages can be used by local authorities and in courts, and under Greek law, interpreters will be provided. Nevertheless, most Pomaks will speak Turkish on such occasions. Most Pomaks are fluent in their Pomak dialects (spoken amongst themselves), Turkish (their language of education and the main language of the Muslim minority), Greek (the official language of the Greek state), and many know some Arabic (the language of the Qur’an).
When the Greek government recognized ‘Muslims’ in the Treaty of Lausanne, the population of Western Thrace was predominantly Muslim. In the 1920 population exchanges, however – and in contravention of the Treaty of Lausanne – some 60,000 Greek-speaking refugees from Asia Minor were resettled in Western Thrace; and under the 1967-74 military dictatorship Greeks were given financial incentives to move there to land reallocated from Muslims, who were given inferior land in exchange. At the same time, subjected to economic, social and political pressures, many Turks and Pomaks emigrated, mainly to Turkey, but also to other areas of Greece and to Germany.
The Treaty of Lausanne gave the ‘Muslim minority’ the right to religious freedom and to education in their own language which in practice meant Turkish. The militarization of much of Western Thrace due to the Cold War boundary with Bulgaria and the hostility between Turkey and Greece meant that movement was severely restricted for inhabitants.
Turks and Pomaks have not been adequately compensated for land expropriated from them for public use. Elected Turkish minority community boards, established by government decree in 1920, were abolished under the dictatorship and have never been reinstituted. ‘Muslim-origin Greek citizens’ were deprived of citizenship under Article 19 of the Greek Nationality Law.
Community polarization in Western Thrace increased in the late twentieth century. In 1989 Dr Sadik Ahmet won a seat in parliament as an independent Turkish candidate. In 1990 he was found guilty of provoking discord by claiming the existence of a Turkish minority in Greece. In the 1993 elections the Greek Parliament introduced a 3 per cent nationwide threshold to eliminate the possibility of such candidates winning seats; Ahmet was consequently not re-elected. (He died in a car accident in July 1995.)
Since then the situation has ameliorated. The Pan Hellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government, ousted in the March 2004 elections, affirmed an individual right of self-identification, but people who defined themselves as members of a ‘minority’ still found it difficult to express their identity freely and maintain their culture. The prohibition of the adjective ‘Turkish’ in association names continues to be enforced, although individuals legally may call themselves Turks. To most Greeks the terms connote Turkish identity or loyalties, and many objected to their use by Greek citizens of Turkish origin.
Since the 1920s, according to the terms of the Treaty of Sevres (1920) and Treaty of Lausanne (1923), the Greek Muslim minority have been subject to Shari’a law in matters such as inheritance, divorce and other family matters. In January 2018, however, the Greek government annulled this provision, allowing Greek Muslims the opportunity to pursue claims through secular courts instead. A Greek Muslim widow had brought a case concerning her inheritance to the European Court of Human Rights after a Greek court had ruled that only a mufti, an Islamic legal scholar, could decide on the matter. Following an initiative by the government of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Muslims can now choose whether they wish to turn to Sharia or secular courts.
The self-identification of Western Thrace’s Muslims continues to be politicized, with Turkey insisting that the majority of the Muslim population are ethnically Turkish, while Greece claims that a large number are Pomak.
A further crucial issue for ethnic Turkish and other minority associations is that they have been unable to register formally. These cases strike at the heart of the right to self-identification for members of minorities in Greece, where the right to collective identity is denied to the Turkish minority, who are only counted as part of a larger Muslim minority. In fact, the Greek authorities have closed several associations which had the word ‘Turkish’ in their names. In July 2018, despite winning their case before the European Court of Human Rights, the Turkish Union of Xanthi had their application rejected yet again by a Greek appeals court. This was despite legislation adopted by the Greek parliament to allow associations to reapply for registration despite prior rejections.