Davutoglu, Venizelos Talk Turkey, Cyprus

ATHENS – Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met with his Greek counterpart Evangelos Venizelos on Dec. 13 trying to kick start progress on what seems to be the hopeless goal of reunifying Cyprus and as Turkey is pressing Greece for greater rights for Turks living in Thrace while holding back the reopening of the Halki Seminary in Istanbul.

At a joint press conference, Venizelos said once again that Greece does not recognize the unlawful Turkish state that was set up in northern Cyprus after an invasion in 1974 and which only Turkey accepts is a sovereign territory. Venizelos said that it’s up to the Cypriots, and not the Greeks, to decide how to handle it as talks there remain broken down, although Greece had offered to be a broker.

Davutoglu said Turkey was willing to contribute to a solution on Cyprus, as one of the island’s guarantor powers. He also pushed for Turkey’s claims concerning their countrymen in Thrace. “The issue of our minorities must be regarded as an opportunity, a bridge that can unite our two peoples,” he said without offering anything in return.

They also talked about illegal immigration, Greece’s forthcoming assumption of the European Union’s rotating six-month presidency and areas of potential bilateral cooperation as well as issues of religious freedom.

Davutoglou noted that 27 bilateral agreements had been signed in three years and as Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras had gone to Turkey to urge closer ties, while Venizelos pointed to “massive potential” to the development of bilateral cooperation in the tourism sector.

Turkey refused to recognize Cyprus as the EU’s rotating presidency holder previously – and it does not allow ships or planes from Cyprus into Turkey even while Turkey is hoping to be an EU member. But Davutoglu said Greece’s holding of the powerless, symbolic office was important and might help Turkey’s EU prospects. He said the signing of a pact for the repatriation of illegal immigrants would speed the process.

The issue of religious freedom figured high on the agenda of talks too. Asked by a Kathimerini reporter about Ankara’s stated intentions to turn the Aghia Sofia Orthodox Church in Istanbul into a mosque, and questioned about Ankara’s insistence on seeking to speak for Muslims in Thrace, Davutoglu skirted the issue, claiming that “Ankara honors international laws in all such matters.”

Speaking on the same issue, Venizelos – the PASOK Socialist chief who is also Deputy Prime Minister as a partner in the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, the New Democracy Conservative leader, noted that the protection of all monasteries of global cultural significance are the obligation of member states of the United Nations and UNESCO.

On plans for a mosque in Athens, which have resumed after the Greek government announced last month that a consortium has been chosen to begin the work in the face of furious opposition, Venizelos said the state-funded mosque was important for the rights of Muslims living in Greece while not pushing for the same for Greeks in Turkey.

Earlier, Davutoglu met with Samaras who reportedly told him that he and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had agreed, in a recent telephone conversation, on the importance of maintaining the “positive momentum” in the improvement of bilateral ties. He didn’t explain what that meant nor went into any reported details.