Identifier
Created
Classification
Origin
06ATHENS1304
2006-05-22 07:06:00
CONFIDENTIAL
Embassy Athens
Cable title:  

GREECE'S MUSLIM MINORITY IN THRACE: POTENTIAL

Tags:  PGOV PREL PHUM TU GR 
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PP RUEHAG RUEHDBU RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHTH #1304/01 1420706
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 220706Z MAY 06
FM AMEMBASSY ATHENS
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 5515
INFO RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEHAK/AMEMBASSY ANKARA PRIORITY 4091
RUEHSQ/AMEMBASSY SKOPJE PRIORITY 0961
RUEHSF/AMEMBASSY SOFIA PRIORITY 1408
RUEHTI/AMEMBASSY TIRANA PRIORITY 1092
RUEHIT/AMCONSUL ISTANBUL PRIORITY 1576
RUEHTH/AMCONSUL THESSALONIKI PRIORITY 0311
RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 05 ATHENS 001304 

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

FOR EUR, EUR/SE, DRL

E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/10/2016
TAGS: PGOV PREL PHUM TU GR
SUBJECT: GREECE'S MUSLIM MINORITY IN THRACE: POTENTIAL
FACTOR OF COOPERATION BETWEEN GREECE-TURKEY?

REF: A. ATHENS 1292

B. ATHENS 1155

C. 05 ATHENS 3204

D. 05 THESSALONIKI 99

E. THESSALONIKI 64

F. 2005 RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT FOR GREECE

G. 05 THESSALONIKI 24

Classified By: CDA Tom Countryman for Reasons 1.4 b and d.

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 05 ATHENS 001304

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

FOR EUR, EUR/SE, DRL

E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/10/2016
TAGS: PGOV PREL PHUM TU GR
SUBJECT: GREECE'S MUSLIM MINORITY IN THRACE: POTENTIAL
FACTOR OF COOPERATION BETWEEN GREECE-TURKEY?

REF: A. ATHENS 1292

B. ATHENS 1155

C. 05 ATHENS 3204

D. 05 THESSALONIKI 99

E. THESSALONIKI 64

F. 2005 RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT FOR GREECE

G. 05 THESSALONIKI 24

Classified By: CDA Tom Countryman for Reasons 1.4 b and d.


1. (C) SUMMARY: Greece's large Muslim minority in Thrace
could be the source of reciprocal CBMs between Greece and
Turkey that lessen tension and assist Turkey's EU accession,
a strategic GoG objective. Unfortunately, that is not the
case at present: Greece views this minority as purely a
domestic issue, while it sees Turkey's obligations to its
ethnic Greek minority as strictly an EU matter, as FM
Bakoyannis made clear to the Ambassador. The picture, as
told to us by Greece's only Muslim MP, is further complicated
by Turkey's heavyhanded influence among this Muslim minority
-- a significant portion of which is not ethnic Turk, but
Pomak (Slavic-speaking Muslims) and Roma. The GoT tends to
label all Muslims in Thrace as "Turkish." Turkish government
concerns, from a recent Turkish MFA non-paper we received,
revolve around direct election of muftis, improving minority
education and the like (see para 12). While the situation is
far from ideal, there are some modest actions the GoG can
take to promote goodwill. It could open a second
Turkish-language highschool and promote economic development
in Thrace, one of Greece's poorest regions. It could show
openness to the election of Muslim community leaders who do
not also hold judicial powers. Perhaps the most important
thing it could do is open a mosque in Athens, something the
GoG has promised to do for some time and a specific point
that PM Erdogan raised with Secretary Rice during her recent
visit to Ankara. END SUMMARY.

Background
--------------


2. (SBU) Thrace, the northeastern part of Greece that
borders Turkey, is home to an estimated 100,000 to 125,000
indigenous Muslims who are legally recognized as a minority
under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty between Greece and Turkey.

The minority, most of whom identify themselves as ethnically
Turkish, estimates as many as 150,000 members. Included are
roughly 30,000 Pomaks, Muslims of Slavic origin who speak a
dialect of modern-day Bulgarian. Officials sometimes
estimate that Pomaks comprise as much as 40 percent of the
Muslim minority to downplay the community's "Turkish" origin
(ref E reports on the nomination of the first-ever Pomak
candidate for super-nomarch in the region). Nevertheless,
many ethnic Pomaks, including Muslim leaders, identify
themselves as members of the Turkish community, not as
Pomaks. There are several thousand Roma-speaking Muslims in
Thrace, many of whom also identify themselves as "Turks," a
more socially desirable label than the derogatory "gypsy."
Muslims in Thrace are relatively uneducated and poor by Greek
standards. Most are engaged in subsistence tobacco farming,
which will lose generous EU subsidies starting in 2009. The
minority's chief complaints are inadequate employment,
education, and economic development in the region, as well as
infringements of their rights to self-determination or to
identify themselves as "Turkish."

Why We Care
--------------


3. (SBU) Apart from our interest in promoting human rights
and religious freedom generally, improving the lot of the
Muslim minority in Thrace and the Greek minority in Istanbul
offers the potential for Greek-Turkish confidence building
measures that might not only reduce tension between the two
(such as in the Aegean),but might also contribute positively
to Ankara's EU accession process.

Greek/Turkish Perceptions
--------------


4. (C) Unfortunately, Greece and Turkey differ
significantly in how they perceive minority issues. The GoG
argues that its Muslim minority is a domestic matter, not

ATHENS 00001304 002 OF 005


subject to any legal obligations other than the 1923 Lausanne
Treaty, while it views treatment of its ethnic brethren in
Turkey as governed both by Lausanne and by Turkish
commitments in the context of EU accession. In an April 26
meeting with Ambassador, FM Bakoyannis made clear that the
re-opening of the Halki Seminary in Istanbul, for example,
was solely a matter of Turkey's obligations to the EU, not a
bilateral issue. She said emphatically that she could "never
put this on the table as a bilateral issue with Turkey."
When Ambassador suggested that, as a means to provide PM
Erdogan with political cover, the GoG consider separating the
legal and religious duties of muftis to allow direct
elections of those who would provide only religious services,
the FM was dismissive. She said it would be "dangerous" to
change this status and that the GoG was "spending millions on
our Muslim citizens" for economic development and new
educational and health projects.


5. (C) The GoG also argues, not without justification, that
the two minority situations are not easily comparable: in
Istanbul, less than 3,000 mostly elderly Greeks are "fighting
for the very existence of their community," while in western
Thrace the 100,000-150,000 members of the Muslim minority are
in no such danger. GoG officials note that the two sides'
populations were not all that different in size when the
Lausanne Treaty was concluded.


6. (C) One area where there could be potential goodwill is
the opening of a mosque in Athens, still the only major
European capital without one. While this would mainly
benefit the burgeoning South Asian and Arab Muslim
populations in Athens, we know that PM Erdogan is interested
in the issue because he raised it with Secretary Rice during
her recent visit to Ankara. The GoG has committed itself to
doing this recently without any quid-pro-quo from the Turks.
The Greeks view it as their own internal obligation (and an
embarrassment given the criticism of the foot-dragging from
the Council of Europe). However, a firm decision on venue,
timetable and funding would no doubt improve the atmosphere
between the two.


7. (C) In a May 10 meeting with DCM, Amb Konstantinos
Bitsios, the PM's deputy diplomatic adviser, confirmed the
government's decision to build an Athens mosque from national
funds. It would not solicit nor accept funding from Saudi
Arabia. DCM urged the GoG to get maximum benefit from its
decision by finding some small way to involve Turkey, e.g.:
accepting a token donation from the GoT for construction;
inviting a Turkish cultural figure to serve on a design
committee; or even selecting an architect from Turkey.
Bitsios was intrigued and said the GoG might consider these
ideas.

Turkey's Dynamic in Western Thrace
--------------


8. (C) Ankara plays a very influential role in Western
Thrace, according to MP Ilhan Ahmet, who is from the region
and is Greece's only Muslim MP. He tells us that Turkey
attempts to label all of the region's Muslims as Turkish,
even when a significant part of this minority -- Pomaks and
Roma -- are clearly not ethnically Turkish. Some Pomaks and
Roma feel compelled to go along with this to maintain Muslim
unity and to seek financial rewards from Turkey (ref A
reports on the controversy touched off by delivery of
Pomak-language books to a Pomak village).


9. (C) Indeed, Ahmet (protect) estimates that Turkey's
influential Consul General in Komotini, Umit Gurdum, spends
between 4-5 million euro annually on "salaries" in Thrace for
certain imams and community leaders. Known as a hardliner,
Gurdum protested to poloffs in December 2005 of "gross human
rights violations" in the region, saying this situation
should not be tolerated in a country that has "supposedly"
met EU entry criteria. Ahmet is critical of the CG's (and
Turkey's) role because he believes it does not focus on the
most important issue facing the Muslim minority: lack of
economic development.

What Next?
--------------


ATHENS 00001304 003 OF 005



10. (C) While we would all like to see Greece's large
Muslim minority in Thrace serve as a bridge to promote
greater understanding and cooperation between Greece and
Turkey, we're clearly not there yet. The Greeks, seeing that
the EU accession process may provide leverage on Turkey's
treatment of its ethnic Greek minority, are clearly not
interested in horsetrading on re-opening Halki or other
issues. They also firmly believe (with justification) that
their Muslim minority is in much better shape than the tiny
Greek minority in Istanbul, which they tell us frequently is
holding on by its fingernails.


11. (C) That said, there are things that Greece can do to
make PM Erdogan's own minority decisions easier. We should
focus on getting the Greeks to make good on something they
have committed to: firm plans for opening a mosque in Athens.
They could also take some fairly modest steps, easily
defended as being in Greece's own interest, such as opening a
second Turkish-language school and promoting economic
development in Thrace. Although more problematic, we should
encourage Athens to consider how it might tolerate the free
election of Muslim community leaders in a way that clearly
separates their role from the quasi-judicial functions of
muftis.

Addendum: Comments on Turkish MFA Non-Paper
--------------


12. (SBU) Through the UK Embassies in Athens and
Washington, we recently received a non-paper attributed to
the Turkish MFA that details Ankara's concerns over the
Muslim minority in Thrace:

ELECTION OF MUFTIS: The Turks complain that Greek law
defining how the GoG appoints muftis violates the 1923
Lausanne Treaty, and cites the ruling of a European Court of
Human Rights (ECHR) decision on this issue. The non-paper
advocates for the recognition of the two "elected" muftis in
Thrace in Komotini and Xanthi),rather than appointment by
the state.

-- The two "elected" muftis, who are supported by the Turkish
CG, were convicted and fined in 1999 in Greek courts for
usurping the functions of the appointed muftis. They took
their cases to the ECHR, which ruled in 1999 against Greece,
finding the convictions were in violation of Article 9
(freedom of religion) of the European Human Rights
Convention. However the ECHR also found that the state's
actions were justified "to protect public order" and to
"protect from deceit those whose legal relationships could be
affected by acts of (non-recognized) muftis." The ruling did
not call for Greece to officially recognize the "elected"
muftis, nor to change the procedure for appointing the
official muftis, but did suggest Greece take measures to
bring the community under unified leadership. In any event,
the "elected" muftis continue to practice as religious
leaders. (GoG officials usually add that muftis in Turkey
are state-appointed, not elected.)

-- MP Ahmet, in a May 10 meeting with visiting EUR/SE Deputy
Director Hunt, said the GoG would "never" accept elected
muftis, who would be "100 percent" controlled by the Turkish
government, and that the GoG would not allow muftis to be
elected as long as they retain official judicial functions.
Bitsios, in a conversation with the DCM the same day, said
there should be no legal obstacle to the election of
"community leaders" without judicial powers, but the politics
of this would be very complex.

DENIAL OF ETHNIC IDENTITY: The non-paper notes that members
of the minority are denied their ethnic identity because they
are not allowed to use the term "Turkish" in titles of
associations due to the Lausanne Treaty's establishment of a
"Muslim" and not a "Turkish" minority in Thrace.

-- This is a problem and one that we raise in the Human
Rights Report. Greece's Supreme Court upheld this
prohibition in 2005 (ref F),when it rejected the appeal of
the "Turkish Union of Xanthi" to use "Turkish" in its title,
arguing this would promote the interests of a foreign power.
The Union has appealed the decision to the European Court of
Human Rights and GoG officials have told us that they will

ATHENS 00001304 004 OF 005


respect the decision of the ECHR. We expect the ECHR to rule
in favor of the use of "Turkish," especially since a similar
case regarding the Slavo-Macedonian minority was decided in
that minority's favor.

ADMINISTRATION OF WAKFS: The non-paper accuses Greece of
interference with the administration of charitable religious
and social institutions (wakfs) in Thrace.

-- There are, indeed, serious problems with this in Thrace
and on the island of Rhodes (where Muslim charitable
foundations and land are worth considerably more). The Greek
State has imposed excessive property taxes and fines on the
wakfs due to their non-compliance with national land registry
laws. (Note: Some of these wakfs can trace their origins back
centuries, but do not have property documentation, since many
records were destroyed in the world wars. End Note.) The GoG
responds that the wakf issue is reciprocal, since fines have
been imposed on Greek Orthodox minority foundations in
Istanbul, and properties there have been confiscated by the
GOT. On a good note, according to minority representatives
the GoG has not sought to collect any assessments or enforce
land registration requirements (ref E).

PROBLEMS IN EDUCATION: The non-paper (and the Muslim
minority) are critical of minority education in Thrace,
namely the inadequate number of schools and low quality
education.

-- This is an area that is also valid and we have reported on
these problems (ref C). Contrary to the non-paper, however,
we understand that the decision to reduce the number of
Turkish teachers at minority schools was a reciprocal
decision based on reductions in the number of Greek teachers
in Turkey. (In a 1968 cultural protocol, both states had
committed to a specific number of state-funded teachers for
minorities.) The non-paper's claim that compulsory primary
education is limited to six years for minorities is untrue;
there is a national mandatory educational requirement of 9
years for all Greek citizens. Where there are inadequate
numbers of seats in minority high schools (following six
years of minority education),children can attend mainstream
(i.e., Greek language) high schools. Minority members and MP
Ahmet have proposed -- and we agree -- that opening an
additional minority high school in Komotini would be more
than a gesture, and would be warmly welcomed by the Muslim
community.

-- On a related note, minority complaints of inadequate
employment and inability to secure civil service jobs are
partly due to inadequate Greek language ability. To address
this problem, we have encouraged the GoG to follow through on
promises to introduce Turkish and bilingual classes in
mainstream schools, and therefore promote integration and
increased acceptance of minority members. For those minority
members who choose to attend minority schools, the GoG should
improve the standards of the Thessaloniki Pedagogical
Academy, which certifies minority school teachers. Many of
these future teachers have poor Greek language ability and
are therefore inadequate teachers of Greek. This Academy
should have instruction for four years, like other University
teaching programs, and could include study exchanges to
Turkey to address the additional complaint of the teachers'
inadequate ability to teach the Turkish language.

ARTICLE 19 OF GREEK CITIZENSHIP LAW: The non-paper says that
Greece stripped tens of thousands of minority citizens of
their citizenship from 1955 to 1998 to alter the demographic
balance in Thrace. While the Turkish MFA recognizes that the
1955 law was repealed, it claims it still is not easy for
those affected to reacquire citizenship.

-- The GoG openly admits that it acted in this manner, but
has largely rectified the situation. These citizens were
affected by Article 19 of the Citizenship Law, primarily when
they left Greece between 1955 and 1998. Article 19 was
repealed in 1998, and affected persons resident in Greece can
apply to reacquire citizenship either through a process of
naturalization or revocation of the administrative order that
divested them of citizenship. MFA officials have told us
they are committed to investigate any valid citizenship
claims brought before them. We follow up regularly to

ATHENS 00001304 005 OF 005


measure how many have had their citizenship restored, and how
rapidly the process moves.

CITIZENS' RIGHTS: The non-paper says that Turkish minority
land has diminished dramatically since 1923 and that, until
recently, this minority was isolated from the rest of the
world and was restricted even from traveling from one village
to another.

-- Restrictions that isolated certain Muslim villages,
especially those on the Bulgarian border, are no longer in
effect. The non-paper admits that these restrictions appear
to have been lifted in recent years, but says legislation
enforcing such restrictions is still on the books. We are
unaware of any minority complaint on this issue, or on the
claim that minority land ownership has been dramatically
reduced between 1923 and today through nationalization and
various administrative measures.
Countryman