Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has often left political foes and allies alike guessing. With an upcoming official visit to Greece looking more certain – the first by a Turkish leader in over six decades – another mystery is brewing: will Turkey’s mercurial head of state visit the country’s Thrace region; home of thousands of Turkish-speaking Muslims?
Erdogan’s visit is embroiled in more high-profile transnational issues – among them Cyprus, Turkey’s stalled EU ambitions, as well as the return of former Turkish soldiers wanted by Ankara after fleeing last year’s coup attempt.
However, it is the prospect of a barnstorming address by President Erdogan to the region’s estimated 120,000 Muslims; many with a strong Turkish identity, which is fueling speculation in the Greek media.
So far, the ground has already been set for such a visit. Komotini-born Deputy Prime Minister Hakan Cavusoglu visited the area on Nov. 3, telling local people they had to be good citizens “as you are Greek citizens”.
Nevertheless, such visits serve to bring the minority’s legal rights and status into the headlines, often leading to friction between the two neighbours.
Thrace’s minority is a legacy of the painful 1923 population exchanges between Greece and the former Ottoman territories which saw around two million people forcibly removed from their homes and denaturalized.
Although Greece recognizes the community as a religious minority; alongside smaller Armenian and Jewish populations, Turkish ministers are often quick to criticize perceived injustices or legal deficiencies.
On November 16 Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag hit out at the conviction of two Muslim clerics, accused of interrupting a funeral being conducted by the state-appointed mufti of Xanthi.
On Oct 15 Ibrahim Serif; head of the Western Thrace Turkish Minority Advisory Board, hit out in Turkish media at the fact there was still no purpose-built mosque in Athens, Europe’s only capital without a Muslim place of worship.
These emotive themes tap into a wider set of grievances about religious freedoms in the region. Local Muslims say Greece does not respect their right, under the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, to elect their own religious leaders.
Greece has also faced criticism for not recognizing a number of community organizations in the region.
On November 5, the Greek Helsinki Monitor referred to the Greek government’s “adamant refusal to recognize the existence of ethnic minorities in its territory”.
– Northward bound?-
The prospect of an intervention by President Erdogan into such a sensitive arena has filled acres of column inches in the Greek press. The Turkish leader has often demonstrated an inclination to be seen as champion of besieged Muslim minorities, whether they are Crimean Tatars, Palestinians or the persecuted Rohingya people of Myanmar.
Some fear an over-zealous address to the Thrace’s Muslim minority could upset sensitive community relations.
However, details of Erdogan’s visit still remain a closely guarded secret, and may not be revealed until much closer to his December 7-8 trip. Even Turkish media insiders, speaking off the record, claim they still have not been told if the president will travel north.