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Do You Speak Corona? The rights of Western Thrace Turks in Greece were arbitrarily restricted during the pandemic period

In Western Thrace, Greece where about 150,000 Turks live at the border with Bulgaria and Turkey, there have been difficult times during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the region of Western Thrace, where there are three provinces of Rhodope (Rodop), Xanthi (İskeçe) and Evros(Meriç), Xanthi, with almost half of its population composed of Turks, is among the top five provinces which have been most affected by COVID-19 according to population density. Due to the discriminatory language used against the Turkish community in Western Thrace in media and politics, the Turkish community in Western Thrace is being scapegoated of the virus.

In Greece, the government does not recognise the ethnic Turkish identity of the Turkish community in Western Thrace. Although there is bilingual education in Turkish and Greek in schools belonging to Western Thrace Turks, the use of the Turkish language in public life is not allowed. Therefore, the government did not provide any information in Turkish with respect to the combat against the virus at the local level, although the Turkish community constitutes the majority in Rhodope province. Furthermore, while the name of the cities where those who were dying from the virus were not revealed in the first period of the pandemic, the information that a 70-year-old Turk lost his life due to the virus in the village of Echinos (Şahin) which is bound to the municipality of Myki (Mustafçova), which is composed entirely of Turks, was shared with the public with all his personal information revealed and as the 21st person to die from the pandemic. Later, Echinos in Xanthi was quarantined for 21 days until 4 May when the measures taken due to the outbreak were loosened. The villages of Zoumpouli (Zümbülmahalle) and Arnaouti (Arnavutmahalle) which are bound to the municipality of Myki were also quarantined for 14 days.

While the region from where the first four cases in Xanthi area were not disclosed in the early days of the outbreak, the announcement that the fifth case originated from Echinos fueled hatred in the public. Following the decision to quarantine the village of Echinos on 23 March 2020, right-wing president of the Greek Solution Party Kyriakos Velopoulos tweeted ‘‘Echinos is in Quarantine!!! Ankara's spies live there, coming in and out of Turkey! Think about what it is in Erdoğan’s Turkey!’, openly targeting the Turkish community in Western Thrace.

Following the normalisation process in the country which started on 4 May, the attention went back to Xanthi with the increase in the number of cases in June and a relatively rapid increase in cases in Xanthi. Indeed, as a result of the positive test to coronavirus of a teacher working in four primary schools which are located within the boundaries of the municipality of Xanthi, it was decided to close the aforementioned schools on 10 June. With the lifting of the measures in the country, the increase in cases is causing concern. Deputy Minister for Macedonia and Thrace Theodoros Karaoglou said that measures could be taken at the local level in Xanthi if necessary, in the context of combating the pandemic. However, while all this is happening, information in Turkish was not delivered although the Turkish community in Western Thrace represents almost half of the population of Xanthi and the entire population of a municipality.

On the other hand, the holy month of Ramadan which is sacred for Muslim Western Thrace Turks started in the last week of the month of April amid strict measures in the country as a result of the pandemic. Due to the prohibition of all mass worship in the country, there were no mass worship in the mosques belonging to the Turkish community in Western Thrace and people did not gather in the same tables for iftar as a part of the traditions of Ramadan. Of course, this was a necessary measure to fight the epidemic.

However, with the fear and anxiety created by the fight against the epidemic, attempts at curtailing arbitrarily the rights of the Turkish community in Western Thrace sparked uneasiness among the community. Although authorisation had been granted from the related municipalities as part of the centuries old tradition of Western Thrace, the Ramadan drum was prevented to be played in the villages of Topiros (İnhanlı) and Lefkopetra (Sakarkaya). Despite the fact that mass worship is forbidden, police have called on the imam of the mosque of the Turkish village of Hloi (Hebilköy) to testify, based on an old video on social media. While all this was happening, and albeit autonomy in the field of religion is guaranteed by the Treaty of Lausanne, the intervention of the state in this particular field has continued. As imams who are brought to their office by the community in the village and their salaries paid by the community, government-appointed Deputy Mufti of Rhodope Province who is not recognised by the community appointed new imams to the mosques of the villages of Harmanlık (Adrianopoleos) and Sapes (Şapçı). This situation caused concern among the Turkish community in Western Thrace which had a very difficult time due to pandemic. Because of the pandemic and at a time where everyone was locked at home, this period was taken as an opportunity for arbitrary practices and there were attempts in restricting religious rights.

In such a critical time, a few arbitrary practices such as the lowering of the volume of Adhan although this has nothing to do with the pandemic, and the ban on the use of the traditional Ramadan drum which signify an intervention in the rights and values of the Turkish community in Western Thrace deeply undermine the Turkish community’s trust in the state and the government.

 

During March-June 2020 FUEN has conducted a survey entitled Do You Speak Corona? on the situation of European minorities during the pandemic. The online questionnaire focused on the availability of information related to COVID-19 in general, healthcare information related to the outbreak, the existence of an emergency hotline operated in minority language and the availability of online education in minority language. The short report on the results is here and you can download the whole report in PDF format by clicking here.

This series of case studies is the continuation of the Do You Speak Corona? project.

 

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