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Monday, July 26, 2021

Explained: What’s behind recent tensions between Turkey and Greece

The two nations continue to oppose each other on the decades-old Cyprus conflict, and on two occasions have almost gone to war over exploration rights in the Aegean Sea.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 6, 2020 9:24:29 pm
Turkey Greece tensions, Hagia Sophia, Hagia Sophia Greece reaction, Cyprus conflict, Aegean Sea exploration rights Greece turkey, express explained, indian express Eid al-Adha prayers inside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia. Among the issues Turkey and Greece have clashed recently is the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. (Photo: AP)

NATO allies Turkey and Greece have locked horns twice over the past two weeks – first after Turkey converted the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque, and then over who gets to explore hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Relations between the two nations have seen a marked downturn this year. In February, Turkey had allowed thousands of migrants to cross the border into Greece and the European Union, irking the latter.

The Mediterranean neighbours

For centuries, Turkey and Greece have shared a chequered history. Greece won independence from modern Turkey’s precursor, the Ottoman Empire, in 1830. In 1923, the two countries exchanged their Muslim and Christian populations – a migration whose scale has only been surpassed in history by the Partition of India.

The two nations continue to oppose each other on the decades-old Cyprus conflict, and on two occasions have almost gone to war over exploration rights in the Aegean Sea.

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Both countries are, however, part of the 30-member NATO alliance, and Turkey is officially a candidate for full membership of the European Union, of which Greece is a constituent.

The Hagia Sophia row

The centuries-old Hagia Sophia, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, was originally a cathedral in the Byzantine Empire before it was turned into a mosque in 1453, when Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmet II’s Ottoman forces.

In the 1930s, however, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, shut down the mosque and turned it into a museum in an attempt to make the country more secular.

Many Greeks continue to revere the Hagia Sophia, and view it as a key part of Orthodox Christianity. So, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the structure open to Muslim worship last month, tensions escalated.

On July 24, when Friday prayers were held at the Hagia Sophia for the first time in 90 years, church bells tolled across Greece in protest. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called the site’s conversion an “affront to civilisation of the 21st century”, describing Turkey’s move as a “proof of weakness”.

A day later, Turkey’s foreign ministry hit back, saying, “Greece showed once again its enmity towards Islam and Turkey with the excuse of reacting to Hagia Sophia Mosque being opened to prayers”.

The Eastern Mediterranean dispute

For 40 years, Turkey and Greece have disagreed over rights to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, which covers significant oil and gas deposits.

On July 21, Turkey announced that the drilling ship Oruc Reis would be exploring a disputed part of the sea for oil and gas. Greece responded by placing its air force, navy and coastguard on high alert.

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French President Emmanuel Macron expressed support for Greece, and said that Turkey should be “sanctioned” for its violations in the Aegean.

After German Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened, Turkey said last week that it had halted the drilling operation, and that it was “ready to discuss” the issue with Greece.

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