Karamanlis, the first Greek prime minister to visit Turkey in almost five decades, met and the Istanbul-based Orthodox Patriarchate Thursday, January 24, to discuss the situation of Christians, as well as a row over a historic monastery that the Turkish government describes as an old pig farm.
In November, forest ministry officials knocked down part of a building that the church said was a monastery on Heybeliada, an island in the Sea of Marmara off Istanbul. They said renovation there was illegal because it was taking place on government property.
It underscored however wider tension over Turkey’s religious minorities, where church leaders and devoted Christians have been attacked and murdered, a key concern as the European Union considers membership for the Muslim-majority nation.
The visit of Karamnlis was seen as sending a diplomatic signal to the government to improve rights of all Christians, as well as rebuilding relations between Greece and Turkey that have suffered over disputes over the divided island of Cyprus, and airspace and sea boundaries in the Aegean sea. His tour through Turkey came on the heels of an ongoing trial of suspects allegedly involved in killing three evangelical Christians.
One of the accused in the trial for killing three Christians in Turkey said the suspected leader of the gang that carried out the attack a murderer. Emre Gunaydin, 19, cut the throats of Tilmann Geske of Germany and Turkish national Necati Aydin, local media reported, citing testimony by defendant Hamit Ceker, last week.
It was unclear who killed the third victim, Ugur Yuksel, who was also Turkish, media said. Ceker said that Gunaydin also gloated about having close contacts with the police chief in Malatya, south-eastern Turkey, where the trial is taking place.
Geske, 46, and the two Turkish Christian converts were killed on April 18 at a Christian publishing house in Malatya. The victims were tied to chairs in the offices, tortured with knives and then had their throats cut, according to several investigators and statements.
The state prosecutor’s office has demanded life sentences for the five main suspects. The trial is expected to continue on February 25. Turkish media have criticized the way the trial is conducted and alleged questioned possible contacts between the accused and nationalist security forces.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who met his Greek counterpart this week, said he wants to ease religious tensions and made clear he wants to reach out to both Orthodox and evangelical Christians. "In fact, ecumenicalism is a matter concerning the Christian and Orthodox world,” he said, adding that “positive stance of Turkey towards the patriarchate and its elections is obvious." Christians comprise 0.2 percent of Turkey’s mainly Muslim population of over 70 million people.