NEWS

After historic visit, Greek, Turkish defense ministers to meet

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In the wake of the visit by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to Turkey, contacts between Athens and Ankara will continue next week in the context of Wednesday’s NATO summit of defense ministers, where Evangelos Apostolakis and his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar will discuss confidence-building measures.

At the same time, the foreign ministries of both countries will draft the procedures that will lead to preliminary talks with regard to the Cyprus peace process and the system of guarantees on the island. Both countries are guarantor powers of Cyprus.

Tsipras wrapped up his two-day visit to Turkey on Wednesday with a “highly symbolic” tour of the theological school on the island of Halki that was shut down by Turkish authorities in 1971 and the former Christian cathedral of Hagia Sophia.

Accompanied by the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, Tsipras became the first Greek prime minister to visit the school on Halki in almost nine decades. Both Tsipras and Vartholomaios expressed hope that it will be reopened.Tsipras said he hoped it won’t be long before he will enter the opened school together with Vartholomaios and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On Tuesday, Erdogan had linked the school’s reopening with the right of the Muslim minority in Thrace, northeastern Greece, to appoint its own muftis.

In response, Tsipras said on Wednesday that a decision to reopen the seminary “would be evidence of friendship, mutual understanding and brotherhood,” adding that protecting the rights of religious minorities was a self-evident obligation “and not up for negotiation.”

Religious faith "should bring people together, not divide them,” he said.

The European Union has in the past pressed Turkey to reopen the historic seminary, saying its closure undermines freedom of religion.

The bloc has also tied it to Ankara’s membership ambitions. Pressure has also come from the United States. In a speech at the Turkish Parliament in 2009, US President Barack Obama urged Ankara to reopen the seminary as a means of promoting freedom of religion and expression.

Earlier in the day, Tsipras visited Hagia Sophia, the former Christian cathedral commissioned in the 6th century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Tsipras described both the school and Hagia Sophia as “monuments of Hellenism.”

In an indication of the importance attached to his visit by Ankara, Tsipras was accompanied on his visits to Halki and Hagia Sophia by Ibrahim Kalin, the presidential spokesperson and close aide to Erdogan.

Tsipras also met with Binali Yildirim, the speaker of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, who is backed by Erdogan to become mayor of Istanbul in local elections next month.