Greek, Turkish ministers discuss Cyprus, minority issues

Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu met in Athens on Friday for talks that focused on the forthcoming launch of a new round of peace talks on divided Cyprus and on thorny bilateral issues including Ankara’s insistence on the existence of a Turkish minority in Thrace.

At a joint press conference, Venizelos reiterated that Athens does not recognize a Turkish state in northern Cyprus and emphasized that any proposed Cyprus solution must be ratified by the Cypriot people in a referendum.

Davutoglu said Turkey was willing to contribute to a solution on Cyprus, as one of the island’s guarantor powers. He also broached Ankara’s claims regarding a Turkish minority in Thrace, in northern Greece. “The issue of our minorities must be regarded as an opportunity, a bridge that can unite our two peoples,” he said.

The two men also discussed 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 spoke of very beneficial cooperation between Greece and Turkey, noting that 27 bilateral agreements had been signed in three years while Venizelos pointed to “massive potential” to the development of bilateral cooperation in the tourism sector.

As regards Greece’s presidency of the EU, Davutoglu said it was very significant for Ankara in view of Turkey’s “European prospects,” adding that the signing of a pact for the repatriation of illegal immigrants would speed up the process toward accession.

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 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 are back on track after the Greek government announced last month that a consortium has been chosen to undertake the job, Venizelos said he looked forward to the swift completion of an important project which is necessary for Muslims in Greece to be able to exercise their religious duties. Davutoglu welcomed the acceleration of the mosque project.

Earlier, Davutoglu met with Prime Minister Antonis Samaras who told the Turkish envoy 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.

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