Turks of Western Thrace

Location: Western Thrace in Greece
Population: 100,000-120,000 (est.)
% of population: l%-2%
Religion: Muslim
Language: Turkish

The Turks of Western Thrace are a remnant from the Ottoman empire which ruled the area until its liberation in the early part of the twentieth century. Assessing the number of Turks, and other minorities, in Greece is problematic. The census of 1928 recorded 191,000 Turks while the 1951 census recorded 180,000 Turks of whom 92,000 were Muslims and 87,000 were Orthodox.

While some Turks live on the Greek islands neighbouring Turkey, most live in Western Thrace. The Pomaks, Muslim Slavs and a small number of Muslim Greeks, tend to live also in Western Thrace in villages in the southern Rhodope and due to the official reticence to give figures for ethnic minorities, only for religious ones, it is hard to separate them from the Turks; however the villages near the Bulgarian border in all three provinces of Western Thrace are predominantly Pomak. Many Pomaks also live in Komotini and Xanthi and some also live in Dhidhimotikhon. Official Greek sources tend to claim that the Turks are Pomaks or Muslim Greeks while conversely the Turks claim the Pomaks as Turks. Estimates from the Information Office at the Greek embassy in London based on the 1981 census figures give a total of 110,000 people belonging to religious minorities of whom some 60,000 are Turkish-speaking Muslims; 30,000 Pomaks; and 20,000 Athingani (descendants of Christian heretics expelled from Asia Minor during Byzantine rule) or Gypsies. However, Turkish-Muslim sources from Western Thrace claim a total of 100-120,000 Turkish-speaking Muslims in Western Thrace and most observers estimate between 100,000 and 120,000 Muslims out of a total of some 360,000 in Western Thrace recorded in the census of 1971. Of the other minorities there are small populations of Gagauz, Christian Turkish-speaking people, for example around the city of Alexandroupolis, and Sarakatsani, Greek-speaking transhumants, especially in the village of Palladion.

Turkey is Greece’s traditional enemy, despite being a NATO pact partner, and, similarly to Bulgaria, Greece fears Turkish expansion. Much of Western Thrace is a restricted area due to reasons of national security. These areas are the border areas with Bulgaria where many Turks and Pomaks live and in these militarized areas large portions of land has been expropriated from Pomaks and Turks and the inhabitants of these areas are severely restricted in their freedom of movement to a 30 kilometre radius of their residence. Decree 1366/1938 which forbids foreign nationals to buy land near border areas is still operational and it is claimed that this decree is used against ethnic Turks and Pomaks even though they are Greek citizens.

In the exchange of populations following the Greco-Turkish war of 1920-22 some 60,000 Greek refugees from Asia Minor were allowed, in contravention to the Treaty of Lausanne, to settle in Western Thrace and under steady administrative and economic pressure from the Greek authorities a gradual migration of Muslims to Turkey ensued; this is particularly noticeable in the previously Muslim province of Ebros where the population now is Greek Orthodox. The Second World War and the civil war saw a rise in the number of such emigres and some 20,000 left for Turkey in the period 1939-51 while emigration continues to the present day.

The deterioration of relations with Turkey over the developing situation in Cyprus saw a corresponding deterioration of the situation of the Turkish minority in Western Thrace with increased pressure to induce emigration. Under the military dictatorship of 1967-74 the situation worsened. Members of the Turkish-minority community boards, elected under provision of Decree 2345/1920, were dismissed and replaced by non-elected people, appointed by government agencies, prepared to act contrary to the interests of the Muslim community. In this period Greeks, including many Sarakatsani, were given financial inducement to move into Western Thrace to dilute the Muslim Turkish-speaking population.

Despite the return to democracy in 1974 the trend continued, aided by Greek reaction to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. There has been no return to the former democratic practices as stipulated in Decree 2345/1920 and when the Mufti of Komotini died on July 2, 1985 he was replaced by a government appointee. When the new Mufti resigned almost immediately due to community protests he was replaced six months later by another appointee without consultation. Since 1977 all the place-names in Komotini were changed from Turkish forms to Greek forms and henceforth it was forbidden to use the old names for official purposes, apparently on pain of fine or even imprisonment. Mention of the Turkish name in parenthesis after the Greek names is also forbidden.

Over a long period there have been growing complaints by Muslims, Turks and Pomaks, that they, unlike Greek Orthodox Christians, cannot buy real estate, except for a few select people who co-operate with the authorities, neither can they negotiate loans or credits; building construction for Turkish houses has been withheld for many years resulting in the Turks being forced to live in backward conditions; neither is permission to build or restore mosques forthcoming; Muslims have been particularly affected by expropriation of land for public use without adequate compensation, and the re-allocation of land in Western Thrace which began in 1967 has resulted in their receiving inferior land in exchange; Muslims are virtually excluded from the state bureaucracy and hindered in business matters by difficulties in obtaining business and driving licences and even subject to punitive levies; despite constitutional guarantees, Turks who leave Greece, even for a temporary period, have been denied re-entry under Article 19 of the Greek Nationality Law which states “A person who is of foreign origin leaving Greek territories without the intention of returning may be deprived of Greek citizenship”, and obtaining normal five-year passports is difficult for many Turks. Additionally it is alleged that the authorities are attempting to disperse the minority by moving unemployed Turks and Pomaks to other areas, where once registered they are unable to return to Western Thrace, and are pressured under pain of dismissal to change their names to Greek ones.

In the vital field of education the Greek authorities have steadily increased teaching in Greek at the expense of Turkish. From the 1960s onwards religious teachers from the Arab world have progressively been reduced while the employment of teachers from Turkey to Turkish schools in Western Thrace has been stopped. Since 1968 only graduates from a special academy in Thessaloniki can be qualified to teach in Turkish schools. This academy takes much of its intake from Greek secondary schools and, its critics claim, relies on an outdated religious curriculum deliberately to create an incompetent Hellenized education system in Western Thrace isolated from the mainstream of modern Turkish culture.

The situation has deteriorated with the authorities introducing an entrance exam for the two Turkish minority schools in Komotini and Xanthi — there are some 300 Turkish primary schools — and a directorate from the government in March 1981 stipulating that graduate examinations from Turkish secondary and high schools have to be in Greek. The implementation of this law in 1985 with in some cases merely a few months’ notice was extremely hard on the students. The result of these measures has been a dramatic decline in secondary school students in Turkish schools from 227 in Xanthi and 305 in Komotini in 1983-4, to 85 and 42 respectively in 1986-7. Greek history books portray Turks in crude stereotypes and while Turkish pupils are allowed some books from Turkey there have been inexplicable delays resulting in long outdated textbooks having to be used.

The authorities have also prohibited the use of the adjective “Turkish” in titles denoting associations etc., and the Turkish Teachers Association in Western Thrace was closed by order of Komotini court on March 20, 1986, a decision upheld by the Athens High Court on July 28, 1986.

Over a long period there have been many individual complaints by ethnic Turks at the deteriorating position of the minority in Western Thrace. Such protests are apparently gathering force. In the summer of 1988 there was a large-scale demonstration by Turks in Komotini which was followed by two bomb explosions — one in the central mosque and one in a cemetery of a neighbourhood mosque. Nobody was injured in these attacks which Turks see as an act of provocation by the Greeks against the Turkish minority. Additionally there have been a number of appeals by Turks in Western Thrace to outside bodies like the UN and Council of Europe. On June 18, 1989 Sadik Ahmet, who had been arrested in August 1988 and sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment after he had petitioned the Council of Europe detailing many of the complaints listed above, stood for Parliament as an independent Turkish candidate and was elected with some 32% of the vote illustrating the support for him among the Turkish population.

(See also Turks of Bulgaria)