Denial of human rights for Macedonians in Greece

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Denial of human rights for Macedonians in Greece

Human Rights Movement for Macedonians in Greece, the O.S.C.E. Review Conference, Vienna, 4–29 1996

Presented By: The Lerin Region Macedonian Cultural Association of Ontario Toronto, Canada, October, 1996


In the case of the Macedonian minority in Greece, the official state policy is to deny its existence. This position gives rise to two questions.

1) Why does the Greek state officially deny the existence of the Macedonian minority in Greece?

2) Is the official Greek position true or false?

The answers become evident from the facts below.

The Untold Story

During the late nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating and the region known as Macedonia became a hotly contested area, especially between the emerging states of Greece and Bulgaria. In the aftermath of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), Macedonia was partitioned among Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. By the Treaty of Bucharest (1913) Greece annexed 51% of the region of Macedonia. The consequences for one of the indigenous peoples in the Balkans—the Macedonians—were most horrendous. With the objective of consolidating sovereignty over its newly acquired territory, the Greek state subjugated the Macedonians completely, and for the rest of the 20th century continuously and systematically undertook to eliminate all traces of the Macedonian identity. There are three steps a state can take to destroy a body of people who consider themselves a distinct nation by virtue of their historical, linguistic and ethnic links:

1) eradication;

2) expulsion and colonization;

3) forced denationalization and assimilation.

Eradication 1913—over 160 Macedonian villages were burned with significant loss of life and the remaining population forced to flee. 1946—49—further extermination and expulsion of Macedonians during the Greek Civil War.

Expulsion and Colonization

1920—approximately 70,000 Macedonians were obliged to move to Bulgaria in exchange for approximately 25,000 Greeks.

1923—resettlement of approximately 565,000 refugees from Asia Minor and approximately 55,000 colonists from Greece.

1948—approximately 28,000 Macedonian children were evacuated out of areas where civil war was raging to the safety of Eastern European countries. Their evacuation became exile. To this day the Greek state denies their right to return to their places of birth.

1950’s—continued colonization with people from Turkey, Egypt and other parts of Greece.

1960’s—continued colonization of confiscated properties whereby it is handed over to persons of “proven patriotism” for Greece.

1990’s—continued colonization with persons of Greek descent from the Caucasus. Forced Denationalization and Assimilation

1914—Professor R.A. Reiss reports to the Greek government: “Those whom you would call Bulgarian speakers, I would simply call Macedonians. …. I repeat the mass of inhabitants there (Macedonia) remain simply Macedonians.”

1919—Greek Commission on Toponyms issues instructions for choosing Hellenic names for Macedonian place names.

1920—Greek Ministry of Internal Affairs publishes administrative booklet, “Advice on the Change of the Names of Municipalities and Villages.”

1925—Greece denies the existence of Macedonians and refers to them as Slavophone Greeks or Old Bulgarians.

1926—Legislative Orders in Government Gazette #331 orders Macedonians names of towns, villages, mountains changed to Greek names.

1927—Cyrillic inscriptions destroyed or overwritten from Macedonian churches, tombstones, and icons. Church services in the Macedonian language are outlawed. Macedonians were forced by the Greek state to abandon their personal names and adopt Greek names assigned to them. Some of the hellenized names still echo their original forms. For example, Mr. Popov became Mr. Pappas. Other Macedonian names were replaced with completely different Greek names. For example, Mr. Ickarov became Mr. Christidis.

1928—1,497 Macedonian place names converted to Greek since

1926. English journalist V. Hild reveals, “The Greeks do not only persecute living Slavs (Macedonians) …., but they even persecute dead ones. They do not leave them in peace even in their graves. They erase the Slavonic inscriptions on the headstones, remove the bones and burn them.” Decree 87 orders accelerated denationalization of Macedonians. Greek Ministry of Education sent “specially trained” instructors to accelerate conversion to the Greek language.

1938—Law 23666 banned the use of the Macedonian language and strove to erase every trace of the Macedonian identity. Macedonians were fined, beaten, jailed, and exiled to arid islands for simply being Macedonian by birth and/or for speaking Macedonian. Adults and children were further humiliated by being forced to drink castor oil when they were caught speaking the Macedonian language.

1940—39 more Macedonian place names changed to Greek since 1929.

1945—Law 697 brought into force more regulations for changing Macedonians toponyms to Greek.

1947—Law L-2 arbitrarily and without due process stripped citizens of their citizenship.

1948—Law M provided for confiscation of properties.

1953—Greek authorities meet in Salonika to plan expulsion of Macedonians and to bring Greeks from the south to colonize lands belonging to Macedonian exiles. Decree 504—continued property confiscation and parcels of land are given to Greek colonists along with financial incentives.

1954—Law 2951 confiscated land is placed in the hands of Agricultural Institutions and Commissions for Expropriations who decide how to redistribute properties.

1959—Law 3958 allows for confiscation of property of those who left Greece and did not return within five years. The populations of many Macedonian villages in the districts of Florina, Kastoria, and Edessa were forced to swear language oaths never to speak Macedonian and to speak only Greek. The people would gather in the appointed place in their respective villages and in front of Greek church, government, and military officials were made to give the following oath: “ I promise before God and men and the official authorities of the state that from this day on I shall cease speaking the Slavic Idiom, which only gives grounds for misunderstanding to the enemies of our country, the Bulgarians, and that I will speak everywhere and always the official language of my fatherland, the Greek language, in which the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ is written.”

1962—Decree 4234 reinforced past laws regarding confiscated properties of exiled Macedonians and denied them the right of return.

1979—135 Macedonian place names changed to Greek since 1940.

1982—Greek internal security police urges intensive campaign to wipe out remaining Macedonian consciousness and use of the language. Law 106841 allows the right of return to political exiles provided they are ethnic Greeks by birth. Macedonian exiles continue to be denied the right of return.

1985—Decree 1540 allows the right to reclaim confiscated properties to political exiles provided they are ethnic Greeks by birth. Macedonian exiles are denied this right.

1987—Greece establishes special “kindergartens” for two and three year old Macedonian children so as to ensure they learn the Greek language and prevent them from learning the Macedonian language at home.

The 1990’s—Fear of Greek Authorities and State Harassment Greece is probably the only member of the OSCE which has not granted any freedoms and human rights to its diverse nationalities. Apart from the Muslim Turkish minority in Western Thrace, other ethnic minorities in Greece such as the Macedonians cannot organize their own cultural associations, schools and religious institutions. Greece is probably the only member of the OSCE which does not permit the return of political refugees and others whose citizenship has been arbitrarily revoked without due process. The present population of the Macedonian districts in Northern Greece is approximately 2 millions. Approximately 1 millions are of direct Macedonian descent. After nearly a century of systematic effort to denationalize the Macedonians, many have succumbed and developed a Greek consciousness and refer to themselves as Greeks or Greek Macedonians. The Greek state has always portrayed the Greek identity as being more cultured and superior. The Macedonian identity has always been portrayed as an uncivilized, barbaric and dirty presence within a pure Greek space. The psychological aim is to make people abandon using the Macedonian language. It has gotten to the point where one is looked down upon for speaking Macedonian. The language is referred to as the “local idiom.” It is interesting to note that the Macedonian language is recognized internationally, but it is forbidden in Greece. After three generations of policies of denationalization by the Greek state the Macedonian consciousness among the population has been badly damaged to the point where those who retain their Macedonian consciousness fear to declare it openly. This fear is difficult to comprehend by those who grew up in free and open societies. You have to experience it to understand it. Among the older generation of Macedonians the fear is pervasive and ingrained. It is as if the person is always on guard for his actions and words for fear that he will be betrayed or heard by Greek authorities. When one Macedonian was pressed further on this issue he blurted out in exasperation, “It (fear) has gotten into the genes!”

In 1993 a delegation from Human Rights Watch/Helsinki visited the Greek province of Macedonia and reported that: “Harrassment of the Macedonian minority has led to a widespread climate of fear. A large number of people interviewed by the mission stated specifically that they did not want their names used, for fear of losing their jobs or suffering from the kind of harassment experienced by human rights activists—being followed, threatened and harassed.”

The Case of the Village of Agios Panteleimon in the District of Florina

This village sits on the shore of a medium sized lake as does a neighboring village. The lake level is receding and this gave rise to tensions with the neighboring village as to where village boundaries actually stood. In 1992 the neighboring village began to encroach closer to Agios Panteleimon. Several villagers of Agios Panteleimon went to inspect the area of concern and were met by a police officer who used words to the effect, “ If you are looking for land go and ask Kiro Gligorov (reference to the President of the Republic of Macedonia).” The police officer meant they were unwanted citizens and they could not expect any support from the Greek authorities. The villagers proceeded to sow wheat seed on their village land which the neighboring villagers promptly ploughed under and claimed the land was theirs. The villagers of Agios Panteleimon then sought to complain, on several occasions, to the Prefect of Florina who did his utmost to avoid meeting with them.

When the Prefect was finally confronted by the villagers of Agios Panteleimon he used words to the effect, “They (neighboring villagers) are Greeks. You are Slavs (Macedonians)! Even if they invade your houses (let alone your plots), I will do nothing. You can go to Skopje (Macedonia) or Sofia (Bulgaria) because you have more in common with those people.”

The Case of Canadian Citizens of Macedonian Descent

Basel Sipidias is an ethnic Macedonian who was born in the Greek province of Macedonia. He went to Canada in 1968 and is now a Canadian citizen. As retired pensioners, he and his wife sought to return to their native village to attend the wedding of their niece. Upon their arrival at Salonika Airport on June 19, 1995, Mr. Sipidias was shocked when Greek customs officials ordered him to leave his wife and proceed to the inspection room. He was then ordered to leave the country with the same plane he and his wife landed in. No explanation was given. He was then manhandled back onto the airplane with barely enough time to explain his situation to his wife who was allowed to proceed with her journey. Three hours later he was back in Frankfurt Airport where a customs official recognized him from his previous departure. The official was shocked to see him. With assistance of Lufthansa personnel who phoned Salonika police it was determined that Mr. Sipidias was expelled because of his Macedonian activities in Canada. Mr. Sipidias is over 65 years old. He is a deacon and sings during religious services in a Macedonian Church in Toronto, Canada.

Pando Tanev is a retired Canadian citizen who has lived in Canada since 1960. He and his wife were born in the Greek province of Macedonia. On June 8, 1995 they were traveling with Canadian passports. They arrived at a Bulgarian/Greek border crossing en route into Greece where the Tanev’s sought to visit their native village. Mr. Tanev was detained at the border crossing and after a short delay was told he would not be allowed to enter. When Mr. Tanev asked why not. The customs official replied that it was an order from the Ministry. The Tanev’s were stranded. Their bus continued into Greece. They were denied the courtesy of calling a taxi to take them back to Bulgaria and had to rely on a passing motorist to assist them. The Greek Consulate in Toronto, Canada

Canadian citizens of Macedonian descent have been harassed and intimidated by officers in the Consulate. This is especially the case when Canadian citizens ask the Consulate for documents needed to settle their affairs back in their native villages. There have been cases of Canadian citizens actually being denied service and even being forcibly ejected from the Consulate simply because they were viewed as being “unpatriotic” to Greece.

Greek Nationalism—Origin and Nature

One of the founding beliefs in the construction of the modern Greek state since 1830 is the continuity of the Greek nation from antiquity, through the Byzantine period, and up to the present. As one Greek scholar (Politis 1991—92:17) put it, “Over the intervening millenia, the population of the region had become accustomed to referring to themselves by such terms as “Christians.” “Romyi,” “Moraites,” “Roumeliotes,” “Cretans,” and so forth. It was only through the efforts of a nascent national intelligentsia in the mid-nineteenth century that the terms Elladha (Greece) and Ellinas (Greek), which previously had referred to the ancient pagans inhabiting the (Balkan) peninsula, came to be applied to the contemporary population.” The contemporary Greek state defines all its citizens as being Greek. It does not recognize the existence of other ethnic minorities such as the Macedonians, Vlachs, Chiams, Arvinities, Albanians, Romas, Pomaks and Turks. The only exception to this official position is the Turkish minority in Western Thrace which the Greek state identifies as Muslim Greeks and accords them the status of an official minority in accordance with the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. The notion of the Greek nation (ethnos) and the need to protect it from other “ethnic impurities” is a powerful one. Patriotism to Hellenism is encouraged to the point where Greek society can be characterized as chauvinistic. Greek society has also been conditioned to the point where it is xenophobic toward multiculturalism and the presence of other non Greeks in its midst. Any group who seeks to assert its ethnicity is viewed as behaving against the national interest of Greece and a threat to Hellenism.

Greek Orthodox Church and State

Of central importance is the relationship between the Greek Orthodox Church and the Greek State and between the Greek Orthodox Church and the other Orthodox churches and other religions. The Church has always had an integral place in Greek society and a correspondingly large influence on political affairs. For nearly four centuries of foreign occupation the Christian Eastern Orthodox Church symbolized the maintenance of Greek culture and the Greek language. It took an active part in the Greek people’s struggle for emancipation to such an extent that Hellenism—or Greek nationalism—is to some extent actually identified with the Orthodox faith. Successive Constitutions have referred to the Church as being “dominant.” Article 3 of the Greek Constitution describes the Church as the prevailing religion in Greece as that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ. The overwhelming majority of the population are members of the Greek Orthodox Church and it represents the religion of the State itself. Its role in public life is reflected by, among other things, the presence of the Minister of Education and Religious Affairs at the sessions of the Church hierarchy at which the Archbishop of Athens is elected. Also the President of the State takes his oath of office according to Orthodox ritual.

Father Nikodimos Tsarknias Father Tsarknias is a citizen of Greece who considers himself to be part of the Macedonian minority in Greece. He was ordained as a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church in 1973 and went to live and work in the district of Florina. In the 1980’s out of concern and a sense of justice he commenced publishing a newsletter calling for greater cultural rights for the Macedonian minority. As a result of his advocacy for human rights he ran into difficulties with the Greek Orthodox Church and Greek authorities which culminated in his expulsion from the Church in February 1993. In order to retain his position as a clergyman, Father Tsarknias became a monk in the Macedonian Orthodox Church in the neighboring Republic of Macedonia.

Father Tsarknias then began to experience legal difficulties. Over the next two years he was convicted twelve times of offences under Articles 175 and 176 of the Greek Penal Code. Article 175 is known as “Pretence of Authority” whereby one exercises the service of a clergyman of the Greek Orthodox Church and holds himself out as a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church when he is not. Article 176 applies to a citizen who wears the uniform of a religious official without the right to do so.

Father Tsarknias endured psychological and physical abuse at the hands of the Greek authorities. He always maintained that as a member of the Macedonian Orthodox Church he had the right to wear religious robes. He was not deceiving anyone. Trials in Greek courts followed on December 2, 1994, November 22, 1995 and May 8, 1996 before he was finally acquitted of all charges and convictions under Article 175 and 176. Given the facts of the case the Greek courts could not uphold Article 175 and 176.

In fact, the charges laid against Father Tsarknias were in violation of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights dealing with the individual’s freedom of thought, conscience and relgion; and freedom to manifest one’s religion. However, Father Tsarknias still cannot exercise full freedom of religion in Greece. Article 9 further states that freedom to manifest one’s religion shall be subject to limitations as are prescribed by law and as are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, and for the protection of public order.

It is to be expected that Greece will not permit the construction of a Macedonian Orthodox Church and services in the Macedonian language on the grounds that it would a) disturb the public order, and b) be against the national interests of Greece. In addition to state imposed restrictions, approval is required by the Bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in whose eparchy Father Tsarknias would wish to construct a Macedonian Church. A further example of the problems faced by Father Tsarknias relates to matters concerning freedom of the press which is provided for in Article 14 of the Greek Constitution. Father Tsarknias is associated with a monthly newspaper by the name of Moglena which espouses greater cultural and human rights for the Macedonian minority.

While the state has not seized or stopped the publication, there have been problems in getting equal access to the Postal system. Father Tsarknias submitted a second written request to the Ministry of Press and Mass Media in Athens on October 9, 1996 seeking equal distribution rights as other newspapers. The Ministry’s written response was short and without detail. It simply declined to grant equal distribution rights because the Moglena newspaper was not published according to the regulations. Moreover, Father Tsarknias received a summons in October 1996 to appear for questioning at the Magistrate’s Court in Aridea in connection with his association with the newspaper Moglena. The harassment of Father Tsarknias continues.

Risto Sideropoulos

Mr. Sideropoulos is a citizen of Greece who considers himself to be part of the Macedonian minority in Greece. Mr. Sideropoulos is also a human rights activist and a member of the Macedonian Human Rights Movement in Greece. In June 1990 Mr. Sideropoulos along with other delegates attended the CSCE Copenhagen Conference. During a press conference Mr. Sideropoulos made statements that he belongs to the Macedonian minority living in Greece, that his cultural rights were being violated, and that he does not have the right to freely express his views or use his Macedonian language. As a result of his openness in declaring his Macedonian identity Mr. Sideropoulos was charged in May 1994 with “spreading false information which may cause disruption of the international relations of Greece,” under Article 191 of the Greek Penal Code. The charges were unsustainable and eventually were dropped in September 1995 with no explanation given, and nor was any compensation offered to Mr. Sideropoulos for loss of income and costs. Need for OSCE to Safeguard Human Rights Activists The OSCE provides forums for citizens of member states to participate as delegates of Non Governmental Organizations. It is noteworthy to observe that the OSCE allows and encourages participation by Non Governmental Organizations.

With the aim to achieving these objectives there is a need to ensure that citizens of OSCE member states are not subsequently prosecuted or persecuted when they return to their respective countries following their attendance at OSCE conferences. This certainly is relevant for citizens of Greece. On the one hand they may desire to participate at OSCE conferences, but their exposure to retaliation by the state prevents them from venturing forward. The OSCE needs to address these risks in order to achieve full and open debate on the issues pertaining to the Human Dimension.

OSCE Obligations of Greece

1990 CSCE Copenhagen Conference on the Human Dimension to which Greece is a signatory states in Article 32: “Persons belonging to national minorities have the right freely to express, preserve, and develop their ethnic, cultural, linguistic, or religious identity and to maintain and develop their culture in all its aspects, free of any attempts at assimilation against their will.” Article 33 states: “Participating states will protect the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of national minorities … and create conditions for the promotion of that identity.”

1991 CSCE Meeting On National Minorities in Geneva in which Greece participate concluded: ‘Issues concerning national minorities … are matters of legitimate international concern and consequently do not constitute exclusively an internal affair of the respective State ….

Participating States reaffirm, and will not hinder the exercise of, the right of persons belonging to national minorities to establish and maintain their own educational, cultural and religious institutions, organizations and associations. Conclusion In answer to the questions posed at the beginning, it is reasonable to conclude that Greece chooses to deny the existence of the Macedonain minority and other ethnic minorities because Greece still views these groups as being a threat to its national interest and to Hellenism. Greece has yet to come to terms and accept the notions of diversity and multiculturalism which is so common in other western democracies. For example, the city of Toronto, Canada has citizens representing approximately 172 ethnic backgrounds.

Nobody is viewed as a threat to the Canadian national interest for choosing to self identify. Nobody is viewed as being anti-Canadian for choosing to express his individual cultural heritage. The difference between Canada and Greece in this respect is like day and night. With respect to the question of whether or not the Macedonian minority exists, the answer is obvious. It surely and truly exists because human beings who were born in a place called Macedonia chose to identify themselves as Macedonians long before they became part of the Greek state. The Macedonians have over the centuries developed their own unique culture, language, customs and traditions. It is their God given right to self identify however they please. There is something terribly wrong when on the one hand, Greece proudly describes itself as the “cradle of democracy” and goes to great lengths to preserve ancient monuments as a testament to past glories, and then on the other hand, deliberately pursues the destruction of a living national body—the Macedonian minority. Greek society has not yet adjusted to the evolutionary change which is taking place in Europe and within its midst. The Greek state and Church remain stridently unreceptive to notions of cultural diversity, tolerance, and equality regardless of whether it relates to the existence of the Macedonian minority or any other group. Given that Greek society has been heavily steeped in Hellenism to the exclusion of all other nationalities it will take some time for a more open and tolerant view of the world to take root. In fairness to Greek society there are progressive elements who see and understand the need for change. They are actively pursuing it all the way to the level of the Greek government and abroad. The Macedonian minority and other minorities in Greece would welcome progressive change. All they simply want is to be equal citizens of Greece with the right to express their ethnicity and maintain their language, culture and traditions. It is long overdue.

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