Ethnic Turks in Greece Say Athens-Istanbul Hostility Is Driving Them From Homes
This tiny farm village in Thrace, inhabited by ethnic Turks surrounded by Greeks, is a kind of thermometer for relations between feuding Greece and Turkey.
Right now, the temperature is distinctly chilly, according to Mayor Mussa Nuria Ali, a 37-year-old veterinarian and Arisvi’s most educated citizen.
Ali was born on a farm here and wants his two children to grow up with the same deep attachment to the land as his generations of forebears. However, Ali’s son and daughter--whom he named Baris (peace) and Sevghi (love) “because I love all people so much"--may never have the chance to live and work on here.
The Socialist government of Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou has announced tentative plans to seize roughly 2,000 acres around Arisvi and three nearby ethnic Turkish villages for a prison farm.
“If they do that, it will end the Muslim community in this area, because they have earmarked our best land,” Ali said. “It is so rich that you dig with your fingers and water comes out.”
Although Ali and other members of the ethnic minority freely concede that a prison farm is needed and must be located somewhere, they see the choice of mostly Muslim-owned land as another step in a long-running campaign of discrimination. The goal, they think, is to drive them from northeast Greece to neighboring Turkey.
“When they take a family’s acreage, the family has to leave Greece, because under regulations governing this border area we are not permitted to buy land to replace it,” Ali said. “When we are pushed like that, most of the people try to buy something in Turkey and go there, because we don’t see a bright future here anymore.”
Dimming that future, he and other members of the community say, are a series of hostile government moves: challenges to deeds held by Muslim farmers for centuries, bans on ethnic Turks buying new land or building new houses, and thousand-dollar fines for minor errors on tax returns.
The pattern of government discrimination has been consistent since 1964, when the bitter Greek-Turkish conflict over Cyprus began, according to leaders of the 120,000 ethnic Turks who live in Thrace. It intensifies, they say, every time Athens-Ankara relations deteriorate, as in 1974 when Turkey invaded and seized the northern third of Cyprus.
The ethnic Turks say the discrimination has assumed such proportions recently, with Greece’s fear of a perceived Turkish threat in the Aegean Sea, that they are convinced that there is an unannounced official campaign to drive them out of Greece.
“It is self-evident,” said Mehmet Oglu Yasser, one of two Muslim deputies from Thrace in the Greek Parliament.
Deputy Foreign Minister Ioannis Kapsis said that charge is ridiculous.
“There is no such government policy,” he said. “Being Greek citizens, they have full rights to go to court if they have complaints, and we have not a single case before the court against the Greek state or the administration.”
Still, Yasser and Hussein Mustafa, the 74-year-old mufti (religious leader) of the half-Muslim marketing and industrial town of Komotini, cited recent examples of what they see as a campaign to drive them out. Among them:
--The land deeds of Muslim farmers in the Thracian village of Evlalon, which were issued in the time of the Ottoman Empire, have been challenged by the government despite centuries of tenure by ethnic Turkish families.
--A government reforestation program on the slopes of Greece’s mountain border with Communist Bulgaria wiped out the grazing land and farmland of more than a dozen Muslim villages.
--Under regulations that require government approval for land sales and property improvements, the ethnic Turks cannot buy new land or sell to one another, nor can they build new houses or improve old ones. “You can only sell to a Greek Christian,” Yassar said, “and any new house or building you see around here is a Christian house, because no Muslim is given permission to build.”
--Muslim farmers have been denied licenses to drive their tractors, although recently the restriction eased somewhat. This, Yasser said, “only means that elections are near and the government party is looking for votes.”
--A recent punitive campaign by tax authorities, who have assessed heavy fines for alleged evasion and even for minor errors on tax returns, has hit the ethnic Turks harder than their Greek Christian neighbors. Mayor Ali, for example, said he was fined more than $2,000 for an error in recording the number of his auto license plate on his tax return. The village barber of Arisvi was fined $1,500 because he could not produce a receipt for his hand clippers to show the tax man. “If he sold everything he owns, including the clippers, he could not raise enough money to pay the fine,” Ali said.
--Ali said that anyone who protests against discrimination is fined by the tax authorities, and others supported the statement. “People here are afraid to talk to journalists,” Ali said, “because when their stories are published, they know there will be consequences.”
The mufti Mustafa described other recent instances of what he sees as government land grabs.
“They took 800 acres from four villages near Komotini for a university campus and offered payment of only one-fourth the value of the land,” he said.
“In another area, the army took 1,000 acres for an indefinite period at a rent of only $35 an acre, when normal rental of farm land in the area is $175 an acre a year. And the army isn’t even using the land. They just took it away from those who were cultivating it.”
In response to such charges, a senior assistant to Deputy Foreign Minister Kapsis said that the ethnic minority of Thrace has been no more victimized than the Christian majority by government land requirements and by the tax crackdown.
“Everybody who is a farmer loves his land, and we have had as many complaints from the Christians as from the Muslims,” he said.
As to taxes, he said that “only the people who really evaded taxes are being pursued.” Asked about the specific cases of heavy fines for minor errors, he put them down to “some bureaucratic mistakes.”
Ironically, the legal status of Greece’s ethnic Turks is one of the most carefully defined and guaranteed of any of the world’s minority populations.
When the territories of the Ottoman Empire were redefined to create the borders of modern Turkey after World War I, the large populations of Greeks and Turks who fell on the wrong sides of the borders were exchanged. About 300,000 Turks left Greece and 1.5 million Greeks left Turkey.
However, the Greek population of Istanbul (then Constantinople) and the ethnic Turks of Thrace, both of whom had been in place for centuries, were given special status. The Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 gave them an internationally guaranteed right to remain and to preserve their language, culture and religion. The treaty left 120,000 ethnic Turks in Thrace and about the same number of Greeks in Istanbul.
The Greeks of Istanbul suffered several periods of pointed and sometimes violent discrimination, which eventually forced all but a few thousand to leave Turkey for good. Many of the ethnic Turks of Thrace, though, say they lived peacefully and amicably with their Greek Christian neighbors until the 1960s.
“We were like brothers,” the mufti said. “We fought together during the Second War and during the Greek Civil War, and our Muslim boys were injured and died like any other Greek soldiers.
“Even when the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 prompted a call for mobilization of Greek forces, all the boys here reported for duty like any other Greek soldiers. It is sad that after being close together for so long, events now are driving us apart.”
Ali, clasping his children in his arms, said: “Our only dream now is for relations between Greece and Turkey to improve, because surely then there will be nothing for us to worry about.”
With a gesture of resignation, he added: “We know the same things happen to Greek Christians on the Turkish side, so I suppose it is only natural that this sort of thing would happen here. That’s why we pray for better relations.”