IN DEPTH – Volume 17 Issue 5 – September 2020

Dimitrios A. Kourtis
Research Associate and Adjunct Instructor (International Law), School of Law University of Nicosia
PhD cand. (International Law), School of Law, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki



According to the standard narrative in both international and human rights law, the protection of intangible communitarian interests and the safeguarding of the plurality of cultural voices in both the domestic and the international level forms part of an overall international strategy to prevent and aver atrocity crimes, and more particularly international crimes.[1] The importance of a certain community’s intangible legacy can be fully understood, once it becomes clear that its cultural imprint signifies intra-generationally its own concept of selfness, uniquity, and continuity. These protective guarantees, sometimes incorporated into institutional arrangements and/or international treaties, acquire a further significance once seen within the framework of minority protection. For the best part of current literature, the protection of national, ethnic, or other minorities is understood as a juridical relic of the interwar period, with historic significance in understanding the evolution and amplification of post-war human rights law regimes.[2]

Nevertheless, the question of minority protection in international law is neither defunct not obsolete. On the contrary, its reoccurrence, especially in the context of Greco-Turkish relationships makes it both contemporary and worth discussing in further detail. In this context, it would be important to highlight, even at this early stage of our discussion, that Greece’s reluctance to raise the question of the Greek ethnic minority in Turkey appears to go hand in hand with a more expansive, and actually exorbitant, Turkish claim in the form of a droit de regarde vis-à-vis the totality of Greek or Greek-based Muslim communities, be it in Thrace, the Dodecanese, or elsewhere.[3]

It has been fairly documented that Turkey’s policies vis-à-vis the Greek ethnic minority has led to the community’s decimation.[4] A set of restrictive policies has depleted both the social and cultural imprint of the said community.[5] Thus a minority protected under the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923[6] (Greeks of Constantinople, Imvros and Tenedos) came to be regarded as a forgotten enclave in an ethnically coherent modern Turkey, while Pontic Greeks, according to the Turkish point of history, have just vanished into thin air. The continuing cultural oppression of the remaining Greek minority in Turkey and the silence following the uprooting of a thriving Greek community in the Pontic area, necessitate the following distinction:

The remaining Greek minority is steadily targeted with policies amounting to incremental cultural oppression, i.e. they are in effect denied the right to enjoy, develop and transmit their own culture and own language, whether individually or collectively.[7] In the genocide après la lettre period, Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek names for towns and villages have been changed to Turkish names, and even individuals have been forced to use Turkified surnames,[8] thus abandoning their linguistic heritage or otherwise dropping markers of their ethnic identity. Turkey’s language laws are extremely harsh.[9] Moreover, as per Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution, Turkey still rigidly adheres to the concept of a single-language State.[10]

Even the history of pre-Turkish period is frequently strictly regulated by law. For example, Article 299(1) of the 2004 Turkish penal code bans ‘denigrating Turkish identity’[11] and it often has been, as its predecessor the infamous Article 301,[12] used to suppress any discussion or acknowledgement of the committed atrocities. On 30 April 2008, Article 299 was amended by the Parliament of Turkey, with the following changes: replacement of the word ‘Turkishness’ with the phrase ‘the Turkish Nation’ the reduction of the maximum penalty from three years to two; moreover, the modified law requires the permission of the Justice Ministry to file a case. However, the alteration is a ‘paper modification’ since Article 299/301 has been used against scholars, artists and common citizens advocating for an alternative to the State authorized account of minority history.[13] Adding to that, a lex specialis[14] punishes with 1 to 5 years of incarceration any citizen insulting the ‘Atatürk cult’, such as presenting Mustafa Kemal as an author or accomplice of crimes committed against minority groups of Turkey.

Moreover, the property rights of the Greek Minority Foundations continue to be violated. Specifically, the Greek Minority’s Foundations have suffered from extensive confiscations of their properties. The Turkish government has established an administrative procedure for lifting the seizure orders by issuing a decree in 2011. The aim of the said act was to return some properties or pay compensation when return is not possible. Nevertheless, the decree’s scope was extremely narrow and it was not able to fully remedy the chronic violations of the community’s rights and interests. It is important to point out that the said decree excluded from its ambit the property of seized community foundations (‘mazbut vakif’).[15] Additionally, access to the intangible cultural heritage of the community is also denied; despite the issuing of the restorative decree, the Government has not yet initiated procedures to return the archives and the library of 50.000 valuable volumes of the Hellenic Literary Society of Constantinople, which has been illegally confiscated in 1925. This library represents the intellectual heritage of the Hellenism of Constantinople.

Cultural oppression persists, building on an ambiance of terror and silence inflicted upon the Greek minority due to the century old persecutions and denial of standing.[16] For instance, the constant museumization of Greek Heritage Sites, like the ‘Aya Yorgi’ Church in Bilecik, decided by the local mayoral authorities and approved by the competent central agencies on January 2017, summarizes the strategy of negation. Bilecik’s Church of St. George could have survived as a standing monument of the atrocities committed against the local Greek population during 1914-1923, or (better so) a bridge of reconciliation, given the fact that St. George is highly venerated as a military patron amongst non-Christians in Turkey, either as a matter of superstition or popular culture. However, St. George’s Church turning into a museum, never to be opened to worship again as a district mayor Munur Sahin have stated, is not a fortuitous act.

In May 2016, Turkish officials including the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources Undersecretary Fatih Donmez, celebrated the 717th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Bilecik in a ceremony held at a cultural centre in the city. Selim Yagci, the mayor of the Bilecik, stated: ‘Bilecik is a city of history. The conquest of Bilecik is not a random conquest[; it] means the establishment of the Ottoman State’. Most of the Christian worship places in the post-atrocity period have either been used for sacrilegious purposes (stables, urinals or even brothels) or been turned into museums to host local –mainly Ottoman– cultural items and artefacts.[17] Thus, the fainting Greek minority has not only been overlooked, oppressed and terrorized, but also looted from places of significance as reference points, so as to preserve its own identity, and legacy. Turning important cultural heritage locations into museums or tourist attractions is yet another face of cultural oppression, removing the space and its symbolism from the collective patrimony of the interested community, which has never been given the opportunity to tell by itself and for itself its own long and bloody history in the region.

Important locations and organizations, such as the Hagia Sophia Basilica (a UNESCO world heritage itself) and the Theological School of Halki remain unattainable. It is of vital significance to highlight that as per a judgment dated 2 July 2020, the Turkish Council of State[18] annulled the Act of the Council of Ministers No 2/1589 of 24 November 1934, adopted during the presidency of Mustafa Kemal, which established Hagia Sophia as a museum, thus returning the monument to the jurisdiction of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, to be administered as a mosque.[19] These developments, and the subsequent opening of Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship gathered an extended amount of criticism vis-à-vis the Turkish Government and raised important questions about the legality of such unilateral measures, given the fact that the monument in question has been recognized as a world heritage site under the provisions of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention.[20]

The re-establishment of Hagia Sophia as an Islamic religious site and the continuous stagnation in the process of re-opening the Halki Seminary, alongside other measures of cultural appropriation and usurpation, deprive the community of important localities upon which they can construct their common legacy. For instance, the latest establishment of the Nevşehir (Cappadocia) underground museum,[21] within the framework of the overall Turkish policy of museumization, negates the cultural identity of the troglodytic lifestyle, which was inescapably linked with the persecutions of the Christian populations in Anatolia.[22] The said localities (being themselves reference points) are of paramount importance for the self-awareness of the community, which strives to keep up with its identity and cultural heritage legacy, while being considered alien and thus excluded from all public space, public authority, and public power. The extreme denial of the cultural and social imprint of the victimized community, paired with the traditional inertia of the Greek Government vis-à-vis the Rumlar minority, poses a very specific and yet highly unnoticed caveat regarding the Greco-Turkish relations. As history has taught us, the instrumentalization of the Greek minority qua scape goat to in order to vent domestic rages or anxieties, every time the bilateral affairs of the two nations reach a critical point, may lead to further atrocities, and event international criminal acts, that will finally erase from the face of the Earth one of the oldest autochthonous communities, the Ionian and Constantinopolitan Greeks.

[1] See William Schabas, Preventing Genocide and Mass Killing: The Challenge for the United Nations (London: Minority Rights Group International 2006).

[2] Minority communities were actually the first collective formations to be acknowledged as holders of intangible interests, guaranteed by the inter-war conventional mechanism for the protection of minority rights, like the Polish Minority Treaty (1919) or the Greco-Bulgarian Reciprocal Emigration Convention (1919), and the League of Nations System. Under the League of Nations successor, the United Nations, the protection of minorities fell within the human rights framework and specifically, the principle of non-discrimination. See Patrick Thornberry, International Law and the Rights of Minorities (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1991).

[3] Cf. the Report prepared by the Head of the Research Services of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, which was tabled before parliament on 18 August 2020,

(last accessed: 10 September 2020).

[4] ‘Denying Human Rights and Ethnic Identity the Greeks of Turkey’ (Helsinki Watch Report) (1992), available at

(last accessed: 10 September 2020). See also Matthias Bjørnlund, ‘The 1914 Cleansing of Aegean Greeks as a Case of Violent Turkification’ (2008) 10(1) Journal of Genocide Research 41−58.

[5] Sule Toktas, Bulent Aras, ‘The EU and Minority Rights in Turkey’ (2009) 124(4) Political Sciences Quarterly 697−720.

[6] Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations and Protocol, (adopted on 30 January 1923) 32 LNTS 75.

[7] Cf. UNESCO, Latin-American Conference, Declaration of San José (11 December 1981), UNESCO Doc. FS 82/WF.32 (1982): Ethnocide means that an ethnic group is denied the right to enjoy, develop and transmit its own culture and its own language, whether individually or collectively. This involves an extreme form of massive violation of human rights . . . [E]thnocide, that is, cultural genocide, is a violation of international law equivalent to genocide, which was condemned by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

[8] Meltem Türköz, Naming and Nation-building in Turkey: The 1934 Surname Law (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

[9] For instance, Article 2(b) of Law No 2923 of 14 October 1983, The Law on Education and Teaching in Foreign Languages, mandates that the vast amount of the curriculum, including such modules as History, Literature, Morals, and Geography, must be taught exclusively in the Turkish language. Article 7 of Law No 805 of 10 April 1936, The Law on Compulsory Use of Turkish in Economic Enterprises, as amended in 2008, penalizes the use of foreign languages for all companies and institutions incorporated or seated in Turkey by imposing a judicial fine.

[10] See Derya Bayir, Minorities and Nationalism in Turkish Law (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013) 103 et seq.

[11] ‘Any person who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey shall be sentenced to 6 months to 3 years of imprisonment’.

[12] See the relevant criticism exercised by the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) in Opinion No 831/2015, CoE Doc. No CDL-AD(2016)002 (15 March 2016) 20-24.

[13] See the relevant case law of the European Court of Human Rights in Dink v. Turkey, Application Nos 2668/07, 6102/08, 30079/08, 7072/09 & 7124/09, Judgement of 14 September 2010 (ECtHR) and Altuğ Taner Akçam v. Turkey, Application No 27520/07, Judgment of 25 October 2011 (ECtHR).

[14] Law No 5816 of 1951, The Law Concerning Crimes Committed against Atatürk, available at (last accessed: 10 September 2020).

[15] OSCE Doc. HDIM.NGO/0264/2018/EN (14 September 2018), ‘The Greek Minority in Turkey – Statement and Recommendations’ (submitted by the Constantinopolitan Society), available at (last accessed: 10 September 2020).

[16] As the Turkey 2019 Report of the European Commission points out: ‘Hate speech and threats directed against minorities remain a serious problem. This includes hate speech in the media targeting national, ethnic and religious groups’. See Commission Staff Working Document, SWD(2019) 220 final (Brussels, 29.5.2019) 39.

[17] Uzay Bulut, ‘Turkey Turns Church into Museum; Greece Builds New Mosque’ (19 January 2017), featured by the Gatestone Institute International Policy Council, available at

(last accessed: 10 September 2020)

[18] Danıştay/Onuncu Daire, (Council of State/Tenth Chamber), Judgment No 2020/2595 Case Nos E: 2016/16015, K: 2020/2595 (10 July 2020), available at

(last accessed: 10 September 2020)

[19] Article 35 of Law No 633 of 22 June 1965, The Law on the Establishment and Duties of the Presidency of Religious Affairs: ‘Mosques and masjids are opened for worship with the permission of the Directorate of Religious Affairs and administered by the Presidency’.

[20] See Δημήτριος Α. Κούρτης, ‘GeoInsight: Μερικές σκέψεις για το καθεστώς της Αγίας Σοφίας με βάση το ισχύον διεθνές δίκαιο’, Geopolitical Cyprus (14 July 2020), available at

(last accessed: 10 September 2020).

[21] ‘Underground museum to be the first in Cappadocia’, Hürriyet (8 August 2018), available at (last accessed: 10 September 2020).

[22] Φωτιάδης Κωνσταντίνος, Οι Εξισλαμισμοί της Μικράς Ασίας και οι Κρυπτοχριστιανοί του Πόντου (Θεσσαλονίκη: Εκδόσεις Α/φων Κυριακίδη, 1993) 95.