Forced to leave their homes under the shadow of discrimination and anti-minority riots, Greeks or "Rums" of Istanbul yesterday returned to the city for a visit after decades, under a new initiative by the city's Greek community and the government.
Five elderly Greeks accompanied by their descendants attended a welcoming ceremony at Yeniköy Panayia Greek Orthodox Church in the city yesterday.
"We are encouraged by the recognition that Istanbul Greeks belong to Turkey," said Mihal Mavropoulos, deputy chair of Universal Federation of Istanbul Greeks, a non-profit organizing the event.
The event comes months after Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Hakan Çavuşoğlu visited Greece. Çavuşoğlu received a delegation of Istanbul Greeks during his visit and the community had expressed their desire to visit the city where they were born and grew up.
Residents of Istanbul since pre-Ottoman times, Greek community had faced a turning tide in the final days of the Ottoman Empire and a few decades after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey.
A string of riots targeting minorities and increased hate speech, as ties between Greece and Turkey soured, led to the departure of community members, particularly to Greece. Some lost citizenship over the years as they did not return for the compulsory military service.
Mavropoulos said Istanbul's Greeks, who lived in a hospice in Athens were forced to leave their city decades ago.
"It is an encouraging sign for us and younger generations that the public acknowledges openly that these people belong here. It is of great importance to building upon shared civil values developed by communities for centuries in Anatolia," he said.
Laki Vingas, who heads the foundation running the Yeniköy church and a prominent figure in Istanbul's Greek community, said Turkey witnessed significant changes in recent years and expressed hope for "more changes."
"It is not easy for an ancient community to stand strong with such dwindled numbers. We need people of both countries to know each other better, to establish more cooperation," he said.
Vingas said although recent tensions between Turkey and Greece overshadowed "rapidly improved ties" between Greece and Turkey, they hoped for a common future. "Over the last decade, we have seen that people of two countries bonded better," he said.