Athens: Western Thrace Turks remember the day of resistance against the Greek erasure of their minority identity while lamenting conditions that still perpetuate their oppression
The Turkish Muslim minority in Greece’s Western Thrace region keep the spirit of Jan. 29 Resistance Day alive as they struggle to protect their rights and freedom decades on.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Mustafa Trampa, the elected mufti in Xanthi (Iskeçe), told how on Jan. 29, 1988, and again on Jan. 29, 1990, thousands of members of the Turkish minority rallied to protest the oppression and denial of their identity by Greek state authorities.
“Turks there have always acted lawfully in their struggle for rights and showed a peaceful resistance against the unlawful practices, particularly ones violating international treaties,” Trampa said on the 34th anniversary of the Resistance Day.
Turks were initially able to freely use their minority rights stemming from numerous international treaties, including the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, but starting in 1967, the far-right military junta that took power in Greece started to reverse this situation.
In those years, Turks in Western Thrace faced significant difficulties obtaining driving licenses and repairing or building new houses, to name just two examples of the oppression.
Between 1983 and 1988, the pressure on the community increased, including the start of lawsuits to close Turkish unions for youths and teachers in Xanthi and Komotini (Gümülcine) based on claims that the postwar treaties define the Western Thrace minority as “Muslim” and not “Turks.”
“What is meant by closure here is the removal of ‘Turk’ from the signboards,” Trampa noted.
The Jan. 29 march was held to protest this decision, which Trampa said, “Equates to denial and negation of national identity and the Turkish community had no choice but to resist it.”
The final straw was when the Greek government assigned for the first time a mufti to the Komotini province, according to Trampa, at a time the oppression tightened after Türkiye’s 1974 Peace Operation to protect the Turkish population of Cyprus against similar Greek persecution.
The majority of Muslim Turks in Western Thrace do not recognize muftis appointed by the Greek state and instead elect their own, as per their right by international law.
“Jan. 29 is the name of the reactions the representatives of the community had against Greece’s unlawful practices that overlooked the minority,” the mufti stressed, hailing it as “the evidence of our existence.”
It was the assimilation and forced migration policies of the Greek state that climaxed in the 1980s that pushed the Turkish minority to stand up for their rights, said Ozan Ahmetoglu, journalist and the head of the Xanthi (Iskeçe) Turkish Union (ITB).
ITB was founded in 1927 and remained in “association” status until 1983 before Greece moved to close it, as well as the Komotini Turkish Youths Association and the Western Thrace Turkish Teachers Union, as part of its policy of the “denial” of Turkish identity in the country.
The ITB’s headquarters were raided on Dec. 7, 1983, and the police removed the association’s sign carrying the name “Turkish.” What followed was a lawsuit by the Xanthi governorate for the closure of the ITB.
After decades at local appeals courts, the ITB took the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which ruled against Greece in 2008.
After the ruling, the ITB took the case to Greek courts for reinstatement of institutional identity and legal status of Turkish institutions but Greece is yet to adhere to the ECtHR decisions.
On the second anniversary of the rally in 1990, far-right Greeks, in a spirit of revenge, attacked more than 500 shops belonging to Turks in Komotini and Xanthi and injured many people.
The event is described by some academics as a “mini-pogrom.”
“This is a dark stain for Greece,” Ahmetoglu pointed out. Arguing that the Greek government essentially “forced Turks out of their homes to clear Western Thrace,” he said: “It’s saddening that Greece is yet to apologize for this pogrom.”
“Not only is this apology yet to come, but many of the conditions that caused the National Resistance and Social Resistance Day 36 years ago are still valid,” Ahmetoglu argued.
“Many of the problems, especially the denial of our national identity, persist. The institutions and representatives of Western Thrace Turks are targeted and marginalized,” he said. “This is highly concerning for democracy and human rights.”
Greece’s Western Thrace region is home to around 150,000 Muslim Turks.
Today, associations having the word “Turkish” in their names are still banned in Western Thrace, despite the ECtHR ruling.
The issue also looms over Türkiye-Greece relations, which have been strained for decades over several disputes regarding territorial claims in the Aegean and the island of Cyprus.
But Ankara and Athens have agreed to cooperate on improving the conditions for the minority as part of their recent rapprochement efforts, with Greek premier Kyriakos Mitsotakis making a vague promise to “continue working in line with postwar treaties that designate minorities’ status.”