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The Muslim Minority of Greek Thrace

Misc. Greek news Directory

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The constituent parts of the minority
The present situation Participation of the minority in Greek politics


After the end of World War I, the victorious Allied Powers signed separate peace Treaties with each of the Central Powers and their allies. In the case of Turkey, and in light of subsequent developments that had rendered the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 out of date, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed on the 24th of July 1923.

The Treaty of Lausanne fixed the terms on which peace was reestablished with Turkey. It incorporated in its text the agreements signed between that country and Greece in January of that same year, which were part of the solution to the "Eastern Question."

One of these agreements was a Convention foreseeing the compulsory exchange of populations between the two countries. However, the Greeks of Istanbul, Imvros and Tenedos on one hand, and the Muslims of Thrace on the other, were exempted from this provision. The status of the minorities that, consequently, remained in the two countries, was based on two principles:

  • The principle of reciprocity: According to the provisions of articles 37-45 of the Lausanne Treaty, Turkey is bound to respect the freedom of religion and the right to the use of their own language for both Greek citizens established in Istanbul and Turkish citizens belonging to the Greek Orthodox faith. In exchange, Greece is obligated to respect the same rights and freedoms for those Muslim Greek citizens of Thrace who are of Turkish, Pomak, and Roma origin.
  • The principle of numerical balance between the populations that were excluded from the exchange. In Lausanne, the Turkish side, citing to the fact that in 1922 there were 270,000 Greeks living in Istanbul while the Muslims in Thrace did not exceed 86,000, requested the decrease of the Greek population that was to remain in Turkey so that a balance could be established between the minority populations of the two sides.

The constituent parts of the minority

In 1922, the Muslim minority of Greek Thrace numbered 86,000 people. Today, that number has climbed to approximately 120,000.

The minority is composed of three ethnic groups, from which the element of homogeneity is absent. More specifically, 50 percent of the minority is of Turkish origin, 35 percent are Pomaks (an indigenous population that initially lost its native tongue and subsequently espoused Islam during the Ottoman occupation), and 15 percent are Roma. Each of the aforementioned groups has its own language and traditions. It was for this reason that the drafters of the Treaty of Lausanne, aware of the diverse ethnic composition of the minority, characterized it as a "religious" minority.

The present situation

a. Strict compliance with international standards
The Greek State, mindful of the evolution of international standards regarding the treatment of minorities as reflected in a series of contemporary international documents (e.g., the CSCE documents on the Human Dimension) committed itself to the strict and unwavering application of the principles of equality before the law ("isonomia") and equality of civil rights ("isopolitia") for all the Greek citizens of Thrace. This was done without disregarding existing provisions and advantages regarding the special status of the Muslim minority of Thrace. These provisions were revolutionary for their time and are still considered perhaps unique in Europe even after the implementation of recent Conventions governing the status of minorities.

b. Economic reforms
Thrace, like other mountainous areas of Greece, was considered for a long period of time problematic from an economic and cultural point of view. This condition had negative consequences for both its Christian and Muslim citizens, albeit without any special or otherwise discriminatory practices weighing on the latter.

Furthermore, during the period of economic depression the number of Christians who emigrated to other countries for economic reasons was much greater than the number of Muslims.

In 1991, the Greek State, aware of the problems facing the region, put forth an important Development Plan. The plan aimed at the economic revitalization of Thrace and at improving the living conditions for the entire population of the area.

Following the recent changes in Central and Eastern Europe, the opportunities for the economic development of Thrace have been multiplied. Greek Thrace is the nearest region of the European Union to countries such as Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania, the Ukraine, and others. All these countries wish to achieve close political and economic co-operation with the Union. For this reason, a great number of enterprises from various countries have been established already in Thrace, aiming to take advantage of its unique and advantageous geographical position.

Advantages include, among others:

  • the already established road axes West to East (Egnatia road), North to South (Kiev-Bucurest-Ormenio-Alexandroupolis) and the new border crossings with Bulgaria,
  • the project to construct a pipeline that will carry the oil from the Kaspia region to Europe via Burgas (Bulgaria) and Alexandroupolis (Greece), and
  • the economic assistance provided to Thrace by the E.U. through resources of the 2nd Community Support Framework.
The above projects will clearly have positive results for the economic situation of the entire population of Thrace.

c. Religious freedom
This fundamental freedom is guaranteed for all Greek citizens by article 13 of the Greek Constitution.

In relevant part, Article 13 states that "Freedom of religious faith is inviolable." It further guarantees that "the enjoyment of personal and political rights does not depend on a person's religious beliefs."

With respect to Greek Muslim citizens, in each of the three Prefectures of Thrace there is a "Mufti," who is the supreme Muslim authority in his area of jurisdiction regarding religious and spiritual matters. The Mufti also has administrative jurisdiction over the lower Islamic functionaries.

The Mufti of each Prefecture is appointed following his selection by a body of prominent members of the minority, from a list of candidates who must be graduates of an Islamic Theological University.

It must be pointed out that the Mufti, in addition to his religious duties, also exercises judicial powers in matters of Civil Law, mainly in the fields of marriage, divorce, alimony, guardianship, emancipation of minors, testaments drawn up according to Islamic Law, and intestate inheritance. The decisions of the Mufti are recorded in the competent Registry Office according to the matter in question.

Law No. 1920, dated February 4, 1991, establishes that the decisions of the Mufti are not enforceable nor do they constitute a final judgment if they are not declared enforceable by the competent Court of the First Instance. Court review is limited exclusively to determining whether the Mufti, in judging the case, remained within his field of competence. The jurisdiction of the Court of First Instance does not extend to the interpretation of the Holy Islamic Law nor to an assessment of the actual facts of the case.

Finally, the Greek Civil Code provides Muslim women with the right to choose between Islamic and Common Law. This provision compensates for the fact that the resolution of disputes in accordance with the Sharya, the Sacred Islamic Law, sometimes entails, especially for Muslim women, the application of rules that are more onerous than those of the Common Law for other Greek citizens.

d. The untrammeled teaching of the rules of Islam
Two Theological Schools (Coranic Schools) with five grades of classes exist in the towns of Komotini and Echinos. The schools were founded in 1949 and 1956, respectively. They ensure the religious education of those Muslim children who aim either at continuing their studies in religious educational institutions of a higher level or at exercising the functions of a Hatip or an Imam; i.e. becoming a lower-level religious functionary of Islam.

e. The instruction of the minority language
Articles 40, 41, and 45 of the Treaty of Lausanne guarantee the right of education for the Muslim minority in Greece, subject to the principle of reciprocity with Turkey.

Turkish is the only minority language which exists in written form (Pomak and Roma do not). It is taught in over 240 minority schools (primary and secondary schools and lycees) in Thrace, to a total of 10,500 Muslim students.

The education of these children is the responsibility of a large number of teachers (770), of which more than 250 are graduates of the Special Teachers' Training College in Thessaloniki, founded in 1971 to educate and train teachers for minority schools.

As teaching takes place mainly in the minority language, a large number of minority students end up acquiring an imperfect knowledge of Greek. For many, this situation constitutes a very serious obstacle to their social and professional integration into the larger Greek society, and restricts their economic, social or geographical mobility.

In order to remove this obstacle, an ambitious reform of the educational system has been undertaken, aiming at improving the means by which Greek is taught at minority schools. At the same time, the Ministry of Education has proceeded to the drafting and publication of a series of new school text-books in the Turkish language so that the minority's sole written language might be fully taught with the aid of contemporary texts. These textbooks, while addressed to Greek citizens, aim at fully respecting the unique and rich religious, linguistic, and cultural particularities of the minority.

f. Upgrading the standards of education
The Greek government, in its effort to follow and even exceed contemporary standards, put into force in October 1995 a new law regulating matters pertaining to the education of the minority in Thrace. The law aims at upgrading the quality of the education afforded Muslim Greek citizens and at facilitating their educational advancement.

In order to increase the quality and continuity of teaching in minority schools, the law requires that high teacher qualifications -- including teacher training, graduate studies, foreign language skills, and familiarity with other cultures, civilizations, and religious practices -- be taken into account during the appointment of teachers to minority schools.

The law also introduces English language courses at the primary school level.
Furthermore, the law establishes special financial and retirement incentives for teachers who choose to teach at minority schools.

Finally, the law establishes an affirmative action ("positive discrimination") program for the admission of Muslim minority students to Greek higher education institutions (universities and technical institutes). The law provides for a minimum quota for minority students, as had been up to now the case for certain other classes of Greek citizens (e.g., children of emigrants and repatriates). The provision aims at offsetting the disadvantages faced by many Muslim students during the national university entrance examinations, due mostly to Greek language difficulties, and at facilitating their integration into the social fabric of the country. It goes without saying that the above provisions do not prevent Muslim students from participating in the nation-wide University admission examinations.

In a different vain, it must also be noted that the Greek State provides substantial financial support for the covering of the operational expenses of minority schools. In 1994-95 approximately one-half billion drachmas (approx. 1.7 million ECU) were provided for maintenance of existing minority school infrastructure. New primary and secondary schools are presently being constructed at a total cost of 2 billion drachmas (approx. 6.7 million ECU).

g. Media
More than 10 turkish-language newspapers are published in Thrace. Furthermore, the National Radio Service transmits daily news bulletins and other informative programs in Turkish. It goes without saying that the reception of all radio and television programs of neighboring Turkey is unobstructed, while there is a large number of private radio stations that transmit exclusively in Turkish.

Participation of the minority in Greek politics

a. Parliamentary elections.
The Muslims of Thrace participate actively in Greek political life and a good number of them are members of political parties. During Parliamentary elections all political parties include, on a permanent basis in their electoral lists, Muslim candidates. In almost all the successive Parliaments from 1927 onwards, the Muslim deputies (usually 2) were elected and participated actively in parliamentary work.

Today's Parliament, which resulted from the elections of October 1993 does not include Muslim deputies. This is due to the fact that, beginning in the late 1980s, some members of the minority choose stand for election as independent candidates. The resulting split in the minority vote due to multiple minority candidacies and trends within the electoral body prevented the election of Muslim members of Parliament in 1993. Clearly, if this combination of factors does not recur in the next Parliamentary election, the Greek Parliament is quite likely to include Muslim deputies once again.

b. Regional and Municipal elections
During the elections of October 1994 for the regional councils (second level of local government), 12 Muslim prefecture Councilors were elected in the Prefectures of Xanthi and Rhodopi. Among them was the deputy Prefect of Rhodopi.

It should be noted that in the cities and villages of Thrace where the Muslim element is in the majority, a Muslim mayor is usually elected. In the communities where there is a Christian majority, it is quite common to have a considerable number of Muslims being elected as Municipal Councilors.

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