Erdogan said over the weekend that state policies that led to the expulsion of tens of thousands of Christian ethnic Greeks in the last century were “fascist”.
Such criticism of one of modern Turkey’s darkest chapters is rare in predominantly Muslim Turkey. But the easing of curbs on freedom of expression as a result of Ankara’s drive to meet European Union membership standards have opened up debate in areas that were previously taboo.
“For years those of different identities have been kicked out of our country … This was not done with common sense. This was done with a fascist approach,” Erdogan said on Saturday during a speech in northwestern Turkey.
The comments were the first of its kind by a prime minister.
“For the first time you have a prime minister who wants to admit that mistakes were made in the treatment of religious minorities. This is historic,” said Sami Kohen, a commentator at liberal daily newspaper Milliyet.
“But whether this rhetoric will be followed with deeds, this remains to be seen. In particular the Greeks, they have real problems,” he said.
Other mainstream newspapers made similar comments.
Erdogan’s comments appeared to refer to the events of 1955, when thousands of Greeks who lived in Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, were forced to leave following a pogrom on ethnic-Greek businesses and homes.
It was unclear though whether Erdogan was also referring to the population exchange of 1923 when more than 1.5 million ethnic Greeks were expelled from Turkey to Greece and more than 500,000 mainly Turks were driven from Greece in the aftermath of a war between the two neighbours.
That population exchange was carried out under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who later the same year went on to found the secular Republic of Turkey. Criticising Ataturk is still illegal in Turkey.
Turkey has been under renewed pressure since the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this year to open up a theological seminary on an island near Istanbul, which has become a symbol for rights advocates of the need for increased religious tolerance in the country.
The Istanbul-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, spiritual centre for 250 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, has filed more than two dozen cases with the European Court of Human Rights to recover some of the thousands of properties it says it has lost.
Financial Mirror, May 25, 2009