EU a fragile hope for Istanbul's Christian communities

Agence France Presse
October 3, 2004 Sunday

BY Nicolas Cheviron

ISTANBUL

Andrea is a "Rum", Tarin is Armenian, Giovanni a Levantine. For
centuries, their communities served as bridges between Europe and the
Ottoman Empire whose successor, Turkey, is now seeking full membership
in the European Union.

All three are Christian and favor the mainly Muslim country's entry
into the EU and see in it a fragile hope for their disappearing
cultures.

Andrea Rombopoulos single-handedly produces Iho, one of two
Greek-language dailies to still appear in Turkey.

He claims 80 percent of Istanbul's "Rums" -- Romans, as Greeks of
Turkish nationality are called here, in reference to the Eastern Roman
Empire from which they descended -- read his paper. That makes about
1,600 people.

Rombopoulos believes Turkey's membership in the European bloc will end
all the problems his community faces in trying to defend its rights.

"We have about 60 foundations that run our schools and our churches,"
he explained. "But for the past 37 years, the (Turkish) state has
forbidden any elections to renew their management -- has sometimes
seized their property -- and prevented them from functioning
properly."

Turkish membership in the EU, he believes, will be the best guarantee
for the future of his dwindling community.

In the editorial offices of his newspaper, in a 19th century townhouse
built by the great Zarifi "Rum" banking dynasty that is witness to the
past grandeur and current decline of Istanbul's Greeks, Rombopoulos
laments: "We are on the verge of extinction."

The EU, he explained, can mean salvation. "When Turkey enters the EU,
foreign firms will invest in Turkey and they will need staff who know
how to trade with the Turks," he said. "The Greeks are in the best
position to do that.

"If new (Greek) families settle in Istanbul, then maybe we can save
our culture."

Tarin Karakasli, who works for the Armenian daily Agos, agrees.

"Turkey joining the EU means normalizing relations with Armenia," she
said. "For people like us, who live in the shadow of their ancestors,
this will be like a drop of cool water through a parched throat ... we
could even speak of a cultural renaissance."

She is a fervent supporter of Turkey's rapid accession to the European
bloc -- contrary to most of the Armenian diaspora, which says Turkey
should be kept out of the EU until it admits that the 1915 massacre of
hundreds of thousand of Armenians was an act of genocide.

"My newspaper believes that only a fully democratic country can
question its past," she said. "As things stand, Turkey can neither
confirm nor deny something it does not really know about -- something
that has been kept under wraps like a terrible taboo."

She believes that the democratization process accompanying membership
talks will free the Turkish mindset -- and allow the country's
45,000-strong Armenian community to finally cast off the yoke of the
past.

The grandson of a Neapolitan cook who emigrated to Istanbul in
mid-19th century on his father's side, and of an Italian family long
established in the Greek islands on his mother's, Giovanni
Scognamillo, 75, is a Levantine -- a Roman Catholic born on Turkish
soil, although the term can also apply to Protestants.

Scognamillo, a well-know figure in the Istanbul intelligentsia, has
been a bookdealer, a decorator, a bank employee, a filmmaker, a
journalist, an author and a historian.

He believes the extinction of his community -- a few hundred souls, he
said, in Istanbul and Izmir, on the Aegean coast -- is inevitable.

"Mine is the last generation of Levantines," he said, without a trace
of nostalgia. "The young now go live abroad."

He is all for Turkey joining the EU, but he does not have much hope
for the Levantine community.

"That there will be a rush of Turks into EU countries, I do not doubt
for a moment," he said. "But a rush of Levantines into Turkey -- I
don't think so.

"Anyway," he joked, "once Turkey is part of the EU, at least I won't
have to queue for my residence permit every five years."