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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

Tensions Emerge During Erdogan Visit to Greece

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the status of Muslims in Greece during a state visit to Athens that aired long-running tensions between the two countries.

By

Nektaria Stamouli

ATHENS—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the status of Muslims in Greece during a state visit to Athens on Thursday that aired long-running tensions between the two countries.

On the first day of a two-day trip to Greece, Mr. Erdogan said that the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which defined the borders of the modern Turkish Republic and determines the rights of Greece’s Muslim minority, isn’t fairly applied and requires revision.

“This is an agreement signed 94 years ago,” Mr. Erdogan said. “Many things have changed and new issues have emerged between Turkey and Greece in this period.”

Mr. Erdogan said Greek authorities have failed to ensure the rights of Muslims living in the country, most of whom are of Turkish origin. The Lausanne Treaty, which helped regulate a massive exchange of religious minorities between the two countries in the wake of the end of the Ottoman Empire, says that Greece’s Muslim minority and Greeks in Istanbul should be able to maintain their traditions.

During a tense exchange with the Greek president, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, Mr. Erdogan said that the Muslims, who were exempted from the population exchange and live in Western Thrace, a region on the Turkish border, don’t enjoy such control.

“Unfortunately in Western Thrace, the chief mufti of the Muslims still cannot be elected by the imams there,” he said. “How do we then say that the Treaty of Lausanne is in practice? It turns out it is not, we have to make it applicable.” The chief mufti in the region is appointed by the Greek government.

In response, Mr. Pavlopoulos said, “This treaty, to us, is not negotiable, this treaty does not have any gaps, does not need a review nor an update. This treaty is valid as it is.”

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras welcomed Mr. Erdogan in Athens on Thursday.Photo: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS/REUTERS

The Muslim minority living in Western Thrace makes up about 0.9% of Greece’s total population, but about a third of the population in the region. 

There have been tensions in that region of late over the application of Shariah instead of Greek civil law for family issues among the Muslims living in Western Thrace. Mr. Erdogan will visit the area Friday.

In an interview with Greek television Wednesday, the Turkish president had also called into question the legitimacy of the borders defined by the Lausanne Treaty.

“In the Aegean, there are distances between some islands which are quite problematic,” Mr. Erdogan told local SKAI TV. “The airspace and the territorial waters and the different measurements can be improved.”

But in a separate meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Mr. Erdogan said, “we do not eye the territorial integrity of any of our neighbors.”

During a news conference with Mr. Erdogan later Thursday, Mr. Tsipras said that international agreements, including the Lausanne Treaty, should be respected and ruled out a revisit.

“I think that it has not been very clear what he has been calling for,” Mr. Tsipras said. “If he was asking for a revision we would probably have to ask the other nine countries that signed it, we would have to look for Japan to agree.” Other signatories include Britain, France and Italy.

Greece and Turkey, both allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have long sparred over a series of issues, including the status of Cyprus, and disputes over airspace and borders. While relations have improved since the mid-1990s, when the two historic rivals came close to war, Greece says that violations by Turkish jets of Greek airspace remain a regular phenomenon. Turkey says Greek jets also violate Turkish airspace.

More recently, the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016 has tested relations after eight military officers fled to Greece a day after the incident and requested asylum. Turkey requested the rapid extradition of the officers but Greece’s Supreme Court ruled against the extradition request in January on the grounds that they wouldn’t get a fair trial in Turkey.

Mr. Erdogan’s crackdown following the failed coup chilled relations with the European Union. Greece is only the second EU country after Poland to have invited him for a visit since July 2016.

The Tsipras government has continued to support Turkey’s accession to the EU, worried that a breakdown in relations could lead to the collapse of a 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey to stop the flow of migrants that were crossing over from Turkey to Greece.

—Erdem Aydin in Istanbul contributed to this article.

Write to Nektaria Stamouli at nektaria.stamouli@wsj.com

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