Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Greece’s muslim minority today in a rare visit that underscored the efforts by both nations to end decades of confrontation and tensions.
The mainly Turkish-speaking communities in the northern region of Thrace, estimated at about 120,000 people, have been a symbol of the regional rifts and suspicions.
Only recently have Greek officials publicly acknowledged the Muslims’ ethnic Turkish roots. The last time a Turkish state leader visited the enclave was in 1952 by Prime Minister Adnan Menderes.
Erdogan, who held two days of meetings with Greek Premier Costas Caramanlis in Athens beginning on Thursday, urged both nations to “let the events of the past remain in the past” and “turn to the future.”
Greece has become a main proponent of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. Caramanlis also suggested that the 30-year dispute over the divided island of Cyprus has been ”effectively solved” by the nation’s entry into the EU this month and plans for special status for the breakaway Turkish Cypriot zone in the north.
The parts of northern Greece visited by Erdogan came under Ottoman control in 1363 and became part of Greek territory in 1920.
In 1923, the two countries signed a convention for the exchange of Greek and Turkish populations, which allowed about 110,000 ethnic Greeks to remain in Istanbul and some 115,000 ethnic Turks to stay in Thrace.
Erdogan planned to visit with Greek Muslim community leaders before returning to Turkey later today. He was the first Turkish prime minister to visit Greece since 1988.