Children of Greek nationals could solve Istanbul Greek school problem

Children of Greek nationals could solve Istanbul Greek school problem

It is already more than a month since the Turkish government made the historic decision to restore property taken from minority foundations through a dubious 1936 law to these communities. This impressive shift in the approach of the official Turkish state, which mainly affects the Greek, Armenian, Jewish and Syriac minorities, was hailed as a major step toward making the members of the religious minorities in Turkey feel as equal partners with the rest of society. This new decree, duly hailed as a “revolutionary” step, was announced by the Turkish prime minister himself during the last “iftar” dinner on the Aug. 28 in the presence of the religious leaders of all historical minorities in Turkey in the gardens of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.

It was a well-planned step of public diplomacy which won a lot of praise both domestically and internationally and was also used as a counterargument to the heavy criticism from Brussels about the state of human rights in Turkey.

However, while the improvement of their legal and financial status, as well as their feeling of being treated as equals are of great importance, the religious minorities in Turkey do have to face additional difficulties which should be taken into account if their prosperity and future in Turkey is to be secured.

September marks the end of the summer and the beginning of the school year. And while for Turkey this usually means an increase in the school population, the launch of the 2011 school year brought the depressing state of the Greek Orthodox schools in Istanbul back into the picture. As a result of the steady shrinkage in the numbers of the Greek Orthodox community, two historical Greek schools had to close down this year: the elementary school of Chalkedon (Kadıköy) and the school of Marasleion in the historic neighborhood of Fener. Both schools had to close down as no child registered. Actually the school of Chalkedon had attracted a lot of media attention in Greece as its last student, a boy by the name of Chryssovalantis, had to attend classes alone in a school which until only a few years ago was serving the populous and prosperous Greek Orthodox community of Chalkedon.

The leaders of the Greek Orthodox community prefer not give a straight answer when asked about the size of their community today. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I says that the strength of the Istanbul Greeks is spiritual rather than numerical and that is how the community has survived through the centuries.

Still, numbers matter: this year, the total number of students in the three functioning elementary schools of the Istanbul Greeks is just 78. But of these, only 23 are of Greek-speaking families. Some 32 are Arabic-speaking Orthodox – mainly from Antioch (Antakya) – as well as 20 from mixed marriages. Also, only 112 students are registered this year to attend the three remaining Greek lycees in Istanbul. But out of 112 students who will attend classes in the historic Greek lycees of Zappeion, Zografeion and the “Great School,” half are Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians.

Today’s decimated picture of the Greek Orthodox school community becomes even more dramatic when compared with the 1955-56 school year (the year of the pogroms against the Greek minority of Istanbul), when the total number of school children was almost 7,000!

The present Turkish government has been trying to convince both its critics, but also the members of the local Greek community, that they are a valuable asset to this land. They frequently speak of the “cultural mosaic” which makes up for the “richness” of this society. However, only children of Turkish citizenship can attend the schools of the Greek minority of Istanbul with the exception of children of families who serve in diplomatic and consular missions or as educators transferred from Greece. The children of Greek nationals who have taken up residence in Turkey for various reasons – and there is an increasing trend – cannot continue their education in the Greek minority schools of Istanbul. The Turkish government has already indicated that they would allow a number of Armenian citizens who live in Turkey to send their children to the schools of the Istanbul Armenian community.

Would this not be a good opportunity for the Turkish government to extend this provision to the children of Greek nationals resident in Turkey rather than just caring for the legal status of the community’s bricks and mortar?