ISTANBUL (Combined Sources)—Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised democratic reforms on Saturday in a rare meeting with Turkey’s religious minority leaders, highlighting the issue of minority rights.
Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and leaders of the small Armenian, Jewish, Assyrian Orthodox and Catholic communities had lunch with Erdogan and senior ministers on Büyükada, an island near mainland Istanbul.
Representative of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul, Archbishop Aram Atechian was present at the meeting along with Holy Savior Hospital board chairman Bedros Shirinoglu, Knale town council president Levon Shadian, Kumkabu town council president Hrand Moskovian, Ortagyugh town council president Iskender Shingeuz, “Karageuzian” organization president Dikran Gulmezgil, Armenia’s Black Sea representative Karen Mirzoyan and representatives of the three Armenian newspapers, Marmara, Agos and Jamanak.
The lunch meeting coincided with government reform moves to address decades-old tensions with the country’s 12 million Kurds. Erdogan, a devout Muslim whose government is viewed with suspicion by some for its Islamist roots, alluded in his speech to a broader reform process. Only reporters from the Anatolia news agency and the state-run Turkish Radio and Television Corporation were allowed to attend the meeting.
Turkey is passing through a transition period, Erdogan said in a speech delivered at the lunch, while admitting that problems have been experienced during this process along which the government has been exerting efforts for further democratization of the country, Anatolia reported.
The government is against both ethnic and religious nationalism, he said, underlining that they have kept an equal distance from every ethic and religious group in society. “Aren’t there deficiencies regarding implementation? Yes, there are. We will overcome these [deficiencies] with a struggle to be carried out all together, and I believe that this democratic initiative will change a lot of things in our country. Only if we stand hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by Anatolia. “Persians have a saying, ‘They gathered, talked and dispersed.’ We should not be of those who gather, talk and disperse. A result should come out of this.”
Erdogan and Bartholomew later toured the Aya Yorgi Church, where they had a private conversation in which the patriarch voiced his community’s concerns, a patriarchate official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. The two men last met in 2006.
Erdogan and Bartholomew also visited a former orphanage on Büyükada that the Turkish state seized from a Greek Orthodox foundation a decade ago. The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year that Turkey had wrongly confiscated the property, but the government has yet to act on that ruling.
Bartholomew also raised the issue of the closed Orthodox seminary on the nearby island of Heybeliada, or Halki in Greek, but Erdogan made no statement on the issue, the patriarchate official said.
“We believe the prime minister is looking for a way to open the school. There is movement on this,” the official said. “It was a very positive, very friendly meeting.”
In remarks to the Athens News Agency, Bartholomew voiced pleasure over the meeting with Erdogan, the private CNN-Türk news channel reported.
“We have been inspired with hope; we are optimistic,” the patriarch was quoted as saying by CNN-Türk, which also reported that Greek media labeled the meeting “historical” and “a big step.”
Greek news reports also said that the Greek Foreign Ministry described the visit as “positive and extremely interesting,” citing anonymous sources.
Turkey signaled last month that the seminary may open after pressure from the EU and US President Barack Obama, who called for its restoration during a visit to Turkey in April.
The EU has made reopening Halki Seminary a litmus test of the government’s commitment to religious freedom for non-Muslims. Turkey closed Halki Seminary in 1971 during a period of tension with Greece over Cyprus and a crackdown on religious education that also included Islamist schools. About 2,500 Greeks remain in Turkey, as well as approximately 60,000 Armenians, 20,000 Jews and 10,000 Assyrians.