Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with members of Greece's Muslim minority on Friday, ending a landmark visit to Greece that sharply divided opinion in the country and saw tensions in relations resurface.
Erdogan attended prayers at the Kirmahalle Cammi mosque in the northeastern town of Komotini, where he was greeted by several thousand supporters chanting his name. He spoke to the crowd outside a Turkish-language school.
“There are close to 150,000 of our kinsmen. Our kinsmen. You are a bridge between Turkey and Greece. That's how we see you,” he said.
Officials in Athens had hoped Erdogan's visit could help ease the strains between Turkey and European countries, but in public statements, Erdogan and Greek officials raised longstanding grievances.
“The Greek government undertook a bold initiative to invite the Turkish president to Athens,” government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos told Cypriot television.
A frank exchange of views, he said, would ultimately help improve relations between the two often uneasy neighbors.
“It is the first visit by a Turkish president in 65 years, and there was obviously a lot of attention … Given the importance of this visit, I think things went very well,” he said.
Greek opposition parties called the two-day visit a fiasco that had handed Erdogan a platform to attack Greek policy.
The two NATO allies have come to the brink of war several times during the last four decades over disputed boundaries in the Aegean Sea and the war-divided island of Cyprus.
On Friday, Erdogan walked through Komotini handing out toys to children and greeting supporters. He also met two Muslim clerics who are not officially recognized by the state.
Security was tight in the town ahead of the visit, with roads blocked off, a heavy police presence and a police helicopter circling overhead.
Erdogan earlier rattled his hosts in Athens by saying the 1923 treaty that set the borders of modern Turkey and outlined the status of minorities – the Muslim minority in Greece and the Greek minority in Turkey – should be “updated.” The two sides went on to verbally spar in live televised appearances over several issues.
He later insisted his remarks were not made in reference to Greek borders.
The status of the minorities has frequently been a source of tension in Greek-Turkish relations. Greece recognizes the roughly 130,000-150,000-strong Muslim community as a religious minority, most of them Turkish-speaking.
“What the minority expects from Mr. Erdogan's visit to Greece, to Athens and to Komotini is a new beginning in Greek-Turkish relations that will have a positive impact on the problems of the minority,” said Ozan Ahmetoglou of the Peace and Friendship minority party.
Still, about 100 anti-Erdogan protesters gathered a mile away in the town's square.
“Erdogan is undesirable in (Komotini), and we express the public sentiment of the region's residents,” said Kostas Karaiskos, a representative of local anti-Erdogan groups. [AP]