By Cansu Dikme and Furkan Naci Top
Greece blocking its Muslim minority from electing their own chief muftis violates the landmark 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.
“How do we say that the Treaty of Lausanne is in practice? In this case, Lausanne is not in practice,” Erdogan said in the capital Athens for a historic two-day visit, the first by a Turkish president in 65 years.
He made the remarks at a joint news conference alongside his Greek counterpart Prokopis Pavlopoulous.
Erdogan also said updating the relevant agreements is possible as long as the countries agree to it.
The mufti election issue has been a chronic problem of Greece’s Muslim Turkish minority -- concentrated in the Western Thrace region -- since 1991.
The election of muftis by Muslims in Greece was covered by the 1913 Treaty of Athens between Greece and the Ottoman Empire and was later included in the Greek Act 2345/1920, near the dawn of the Turkish Republic.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne also guarantees the religious freedoms of the Muslim minority in Greece.
However, Greece annulled the Greek Act in 1991 and started appointing the muftis itself.
The Greek President said that there was no need for an update in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
“The Lausanne Treaty is a cornerstone of the bilateral relations. It does not need to be updated and it leaves no gap in terms of bilateral issues. We do not believe that the treaty should be discussed and reviewed, Prokopis Pavlopoulous said.
Support to EU’s membership bid
He made the remarks after a joint news conference alongside his Turkish counterpart Erdogan.
Pavlopoulous said the rights of Muslim Turkish minority "are all protected."
Pointing to the bilateral relations between the two states, he said ties "should be strengthened."
"Greece supports Turkey's EU membership. We believe this visit is also very significant in terms of the EU bid," he said.
The majority of Muslim Turks in the Western Thracian cities of Komotini (Gumulcine) and Xanthi do not recognize the appointed muftis and instead elect their own muftis, but the latter are not recognized by the Greek state.
Despite this situation, the appointed muftis in Western Thrace continue to have authority to adjudicate family and inheritance matters of local Muslims.
Turkey has long complained to both Greece and the EU of discrimination against the Turkish minority concentrated in Western Thrace, saying this violates applicable treaties and EU law.
Erdogan also emphasized the state “discrimination” against the Turkish minority in Greece.
He said the national income in Greece is around $18,000, while the average in Western Thrace is around $2,200.
The Greek state "doesn’t give the necessary support for investments” in the region, Erdogan said, pointing to "discrimination."
Greece’s Western Thrace region is home to around 145,000 Muslim Turks.
Touching on the divided island of Cyprus, “Our aim is that we shall find a permanent and fair solution on Cyprus, and find the same in the Aegean,” Erdogan said.
Turkey blamed Greek Cypriot intransigence after the latest peace initiative in Switzerland under the auspices of guarantor countries Turkey, Greece, and Britain collapsed this July.
Greek Cypriot voters also rejected the Annan peace plan in a 2004 referendum that was approved by Turkish Cypriot voters.
The Eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974, when a Greek Cypriot coup was followed by violence against the island's Turks, and Ankara's intervention as a guarantor power.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was declared on Nov. 15, 1983.
Following the joint news conference with Pavlopoulous, Erdogan met Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
“We, as Turkey, don’t have an eye on the territorial integrity of any neighboring country,” Erdogan told reporters ahead of his closed-door meeting with Tsipras, without naming any country.
Erdogan also said the problems can be solved with “unity in discourse” and “shared wisdom”.
Tsipras, for his part, said Greece puts its effort on building bridges and not wall between the countries to overcome the problems.
“We should focus on common ground, rather than disputes between us,” Tsipras said.