Turkey's Greek minority seeks equal rights, concerned about future

Turkey’s Greek minority, down to 2,000 people across the country, would like to be treated as equal citizens in practice and is growing more concerned for its future due to its decreasing number.
In an effort to share the latest status of one of the oldest non-Muslim communities in İstanbul, the Association of Greek Foundations (RUMVADER) organized a trip to the city’s landmark Greek institutions on Tuesday for members of the press.

Once serving the education of scores of young Greeks from all around the Ottoman Empire and the world, the Fener Greek High School (Fener Rum Lisesi) for boys, which was established in 1454 immediately after the conquest of İstanbul with the approval of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, now has only 52 students and includes Orthodox Christians from Antakya on its roster. After co-ed education became compulsory in 1998, girls from the girls school next door were transferred to Fener Rum Lisesi after their school was closed due to a shortage of students.

The street where these two schools are located hosts the only church in İstanbul that has been active since the Byzantine Empire. Although it is still open, the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Mary has a congregation that is growing increasingly smaller.

Konstantin Kiracopulos, a teacher from the historic school, wants the state to allow minority schools to admit Greek students who are not Turkish citizens. According to him, there is demand for education in Greek from Greeks living in İstanbul. Currently, they are only admitted as “guest students.”

Fener Greek High School, sitting on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn, is housed in a very distinct and magnificent red building. Because it was established by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the school principal was chosen from among priests up until the establishment of the secular Turkish Republic.

It is now a well-known fact that the Turkish state has a special “code system” used in population records to label non-Muslims. The Greek code is the number one. Now, in addition to children labeled as Code 1, Code 5 citizens who are defined as “other non-Muslims,” such as Christian minorities from Antakya, are admitted to the school.

The Greek community also welcomes the recent opening of a Greek primary school on Gökçeada Island in the province of Çanakkale, believing that their people would move to the island since there is a school there now.

Amongst the Greeks that Sunday’s Zaman talked with, there is a general belief that the state discriminates against them. “Where the Greeks are concerned, the courts are not independent,” Frango Karaoğlu, who works as a translator, says. According to her, Greeks hardly ever win legal battles in administrative courts.

Commenting on a government decision to return the properties that once belonged to minority foundations, Kiracopulos says that when he went to the government office in charge of deeds, an officer showed him a map that had the names of original land and property owners written on it. But, according to Kiracopulos, when the officer heard he was inquiring about the property of a Greek foundation he immediately took the map away.

The Greek community members who spoke to Sunday’s Zaman agree that there is a secret rule within the state discouraging the assignment of non-Muslim minorities to civil servant positions. Kiracopulos says that this dates back to an order from İsmet İnönü, the second president of the republic.

According to Dositheos Anagnostopulos, the media and public relations manager of the patriarchate, although some Greek foundations’ properties were returned, others were seized by the state. He says that the state has all the documents showing who owns what properties, since all minority properties were recorded in the Ottoman archives in 1910, yet it still asks the foundations to prove ownership.

Speaking of the patriarchate, which leads around 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world, Anagnostopulos says that its status in Turkey is ambiguous. “We have no status in the eyes of the state,” he says.

During a visit to the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Fener, our guide, Katerina Türker, who is also a board member of RUMVADER, showed us the “hatred gate” at the entrance. It got its name because it is considered a symbol of the Orthodox Christians’ hatred for the Ottomans for executing their patriarch during the Greek revolt in the Ottoman Empire in front of that very gate.

Due to a tradition that dates back to the appointment of the first patriarch by Mehmed II, the newly elected patriarch has to be approved by the head of the state in Turkey. Although the Turkish state does not recognize the Ecumenical status of the patriarch, he is referred to as the “İstanbul Patriarch.”

One of the traditions within the patriarchate is the production of blessed oil by the church every 10 years. This oil is used in baptisms and is sent all over the world.

Because the patriarchal church is considered a monastery, women are not allowed to sit and dine with the patriarch inside his residence. The Fener neighborhood, which has been a significant place for the Greek Orthodox, also served as home to elites who acted as liaisons between the church and the state during Ottoman times.

Despite its significance, the smallness of the patriarchal church is noteworthy. The most important ceremonies of the Orthodox world, such as the election of a new patriarch and his ascendance to the throne, takes place in this small but well-decorated church. The actual throne is placed in the middle section of the church.

Türker tells us that churches were traditionally located in the periphery of the city and in secluded places during the Ottoman era in an effort to keep them hidden from the Muslim majority. Aya Triada (Hagia Triada) in Taksim Square is an exception because it was built in 1880 after non-Muslims were granted rights within the Ottoman Empire. According to Türker, it is one of the few churches that is allowed to have a dome. She says that churches continued to be built in İstanbul until 1905.