60 Minutes Exposes Turkey’s Oppression of Minority Rights

By Harut Sassounian

The Huffington Post

December 2009*


CBS’ 60 Minutes recently featured a devastating exposé on the violation of Greek minorities’ rights in Turkey.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church, headquartered in Istanbul, courageously criticized the Turkish government for treating him as a “second-class citizen.” He went on to state that he felt like he was being “crucified.”

This is perhaps the first time that a major American TV network has dared to broadcast coverage of the discriminatory practices of the repressive Turkish regime against Greek minorities. It appears that CBS was able to withstand intense pressure Ankara and highly-paid Washington lobbyists that routinely try to censor programs that expose the Turkish government’s abusive behavior.

Not surprisingly, various Turkish officials, including Pres. Gul, reacted angrily. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu disingenuously suggested that the Greek Patriarch should have submitted his complaints to the authorities in Ankara. The Foreign Minister acted as if he was unaware that for years countless complaints had been lodged by the Patriarch about the injustices suffered by his people. The Turkish government not only has remained unresponsive to these complaints, but has carried out a deliberate policy of harassment and intimidation to force thousands of Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians and Jews to abandon their homes and businesses and relocate overseas.

60 minutes correspondent, Bob Simon reported that “at the turn of the last century, there were nearly 2 million Orthodox Christians in Turkey; 1.5 million were expelled in 1923, and another 150,000 left after violent anti-Christian riots in Istanbul in 1955. Today, in all of Turkey, there are only 4,000 Orthodox Christians left.”

“I have visited the Prime Minister, many Ministers, submitting our problems…asking to help us,” Patriarch Bartholomew told Simon. He said that he never received a response.

60 Minutes also reported on its website that “Turkish authorities have seized Christian properties and closed Christian churches, monasteries and schools.” The Greek “parishioners are afraid that the authorities want to force Bartholomew and his church — the oldest of all Christian churches — out of Turkey.” The Turkish government “would be happy to see the Patriarchate extinguished or moving abroad, but our belief is that it will never happen,” Bartholomew told Bob Simon.

Periodically, the harassment of Greeks and other minorities becomes deadly, as was the case with Armenian journalist Hrant Dink who was assassinated in January 2007 in front of his Istanbul newspaper office. In fact, just as Simon was ending his tour of the Greek Patriarchate’s headquarters, a Turkish policeman reported that there was a threat on Bartholomew’s life. Previous threats had been serious enough for the Turkish authorities to place cameras and barbed wire around the Patriarchate and provide the Patriarch with 24-hour protection.

Simon was soon to uncover that despite its Islamist façade, Prime Minister Erdogan’s government routinely violates the tolerance preached by the Prophet Muhammad who had written a letter to the Greek monastery on Mt. Sinai almost 1,400 years ago, offering protection and religious freedom to Christians. Simon lamented the fact that Muhammad’s message of goodwill had not been put into practice by the Turkish authorities. The Halki School of Theology, the only Greek Orthodox seminary in Turkey, was closed down by the government in 1971. Since Turkish law requires that all priests and Patriarchs be native Turkish citizens, the shutting down of the seminary made the training of new priests impossible, jeopardizing the Church’s continued existence in Turkey.

Unfortunately, CBS completely ignored the fate of Armenians and other persecuted minorities in Turkey, never once mentioning any of them! In fact, Simon seemed to be deliberately ignoring their existence.

In one particular segment of the program discussing the location of the Greek Patriarchate in Istanbul, Simon went as far as describing the neighborhood as having been “Greek and Christian.” This was yet another attempt to avoid acknowledging the Armenians. Without diverting attention from the trials and tribulations of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey, Simon could have made a passing reference to Armenians — the country’s largest Christian minority – who also suffered many injustices, including genocide!

Readers are urged to post a comment on the CBS website, praising the network’s outstanding exposé of the abuses and persecutions experienced by the Ecumenical Patriarch and his flock in Turkey. Readers should also inquire as to why there was not a single mention of Armenians or other minorities who have also suffered under the Turkish yoke

* The above piece by Harut Sassounian was published by the Huffington Post in December 2009, but the issues discussed and various points that have been raised unfortunately remain relevant in current day Turkey. Various ethnic minorities, notably the Kurds, Armenians and Greeks remain highly marginalized and often discriminated against.