Tsipras' Turkey visit raises hope for better ties with Greece

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Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' visit to Turkey was a much discussed and criticized topic in Athens last week. The majority of the Greek press is still blaming the Greek leader for his bold decision concerning Macedonia. I think he chose the more difficult thing to do; he took the risk and solved the Macedonian problem.

The two-day visit had a very significant and historical schedule. The meeting at the Beştepe Presidential Complex was productive. Of course difficult issues exist between the two countries, but both sides aimed for the visit to be constructive. The relationship between the two countries is still fraught with disagreements, old and new. But President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Tsipras approached the issues pragmatically. After the meeting, the Turkish presidency made very polite and meaningful moves like bringing a Greek-Turkish orchestra and letting them play old Istanbul Greek songs to recall their mutual past. I think things like this show how the understanding has changed in the Turkish state.

Also Tsipras' visit to a Greek Orthodox theological seminary, Halki, which has been closed since 1971, is very significant. He is the very first Greek Prime Minister to ever step in the seminary. As far as I know, the Turkish presidency eased all the procedures for this visit. The seminary was once the fount of Orthodox learning in the region and it educated many religious leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Crowds welcomed Tsipras as he arrived on the island Heybeliada and said at the seminary, "I want to believe that the day is approaching when these rooms will be filled again with the laughter of happy students...There are issues between our governments and our countries that only dialogue can resolve."

The service on the Island was led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and 100 parishioners and priests along with journalists and security officials who attended the mass.

The Halki seminary is likely going to be reopened in the near future, and this visit and the approach to this visit by the Turkish state gives hope for further talks.

On the other hand, Turkey expects the demands of the Turkish minority in Greece to be heard. The one and only mosque in Athens is being built and will probably be opened in April, but the religious rights of the Muslims in Western Thrace are still far from being realized. Turkey wants Greece to allow Muslims to elect their own religious leaders.

The visit had other issues to be discussed as well. There is tension in the Aegean Sea and Cyprus. Both sides agreed to de-escalate tensions and showed goodwill in solving problems.

Tsipras also visited Hagia Sophia, which was one of the most significant cathedrals in Christendom for 900 years. The cathedral was transformed into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks and has been a museum since 1935.

The visits to Halki and Hagia Sofia and the approach toward these visits by the Turkish presidency show also how the approach toward religious minorities has changed. Over the 17 years of Erdoğan's rule, the conditions of Armenians, Greeks and Jews have improved. Before the Erdoğan era, an Orthodox leader could not have an audience with the president or prime minister, but Patriarch Bartholomew has easy access to Erdoğan. He also attended the dinner on Tuesday.

In short, we can say that Tsipras' visit has given a boost to the relations between Turkey and Greece, but problems like escaped coup suspects, disputed Aegean Islands and Cyprus remain resolved.

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