A discussion of Greek-Turkish ties over Orthodox Easter

A discussion of Greek-Turkish ties over Orthodox Easter

I could not help but notice that several of our readers commented on my article last week about this year’s Easter celebration in Phanar, Istanbul. Some confirmed their sadness at the low attendance of the faithful for the most important date in the Orthodox calendar. Others wrote to tell me with disarming directness, “Do you blame them for not attending?” And some wanted to ask about Halki Seminary. Why, they asked, has it disappeared from the agenda when, not so long ago, we were told that the re-opening of the school was about to happen “any day?”

Well, I had the chance to put the question to a close adviser to the Turkish president with whom I happened to have an interesting talk last week. 

“Why don’t you re-open Halki?” I asked him. 

He answered me with another question: “Why should we?” 

And then he continued with several more questions which echoed the frustration of the Turkish president and the government toward the Greeks. “Why should we? What did they do for us? What did they do for our request for a mosque [in Athens]? Our president went to Greece as a prime minister; he asked one Greek prime minister after another: Karamanlis, Papandreou, Samaras… Make a mosque. ‘Yes,’ they said. And they did nothing. ”

Of course, the Greek government had always maintained that the re-opening of the Halki Seminary was not supposed to be a reciprocal gesture but an issue of human rights and religious freedoms of the Orthodox minority whose members are Turkish citizens. But it is true that Greek political leaders had repeatedly promised their Turkish counterparts to build a mosque in Athens where almost half a million Muslims currently live. They promised but delayed it due to strong opposition from hardcore anti-Turkish Christians in the church, in politics and among the public. Actually, it is hard to believe, but, long before Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose to power, the Greeks had thought of building a mosque in Athens. An act of Greek parliament passed in 1890 called for the construction of a mosque, but all plans fell through, even during the 2004 Olympics. 

So my Turkish interlocutor was right in his complaint, but perhaps he was not up to date with the latest, as the current Syriza-led Greek government, in spite of harsh criticism even from its nationalist conservative coalition partner, is hoping to inaugurate the first mosque in Athens in a converted warehouse in the neighborhood of Votanikos later this month.

But the Turkish president is apparently frustrated with the Greeks not only for the failure – so far – to deliver on their promise about building a mosque; according to this close adviser, the president is most frustrated with the issue of the eight Turkish officers accused of being members of the Gülen movement who were not extradited to Turkey to face trial. 

“But,” I said, “It was not in the hand of the government. It was a matter for the Greek courts.” 

President Erdoğan’s adviser was very adamant about what the Greeks should have done: “Once the stolen helicopter was in Greece, the Greeks should have immediately arrested the fugitives and sent them back as well as the aircraft. They delayed it, and then the lawyers took over. They should not have acted in that way.”

Am I to presume, from that conversation, that for the next phase the atmosphere in the Turkish-Greek relations is going to be cool? Even if the mosque in Athens is built? Am I to take it for granted that the Halki Seminary is not going to be reopened? Probably. At least what was obvious to me from that discussion was that the issue of Halki is off the agenda for the moment; perhaps it will be brought back as a diplomatic lever, albeit at a later date. 

But it seems that the problem of the lack of extradition of the eight Turkish officers is a continuous source of anger toward the Greek government, and it may require a lot of effort, or perhaps a new initiative for dialogue, to clear the atmosphere which is already clouded by the dangerous games in the Aegean.