Archive for March, 2012

Istanbul, Turkey

Turkey has decided to reopen a former Greek Orthodox seminary on an island off the coast of İstanbul, according to a statement made by US President Barack Obama.

The EU and the US have frequently criticized Turkey for not reopening the Halki Greek Orthodox seminary — which experts say is related to Turkey’s interpretation of secularism — and failing to take measures to protect the patriarchate’s property rights. The patriarchate is under the protection of international law, as outlined in the Treaty of Lausanne. The patriarch has long complained about the status of the seminary, located on the island of Heybeliada near İstanbul, as well as other property issues. The government says it has been assessing a number of legal options to reopen the Halki seminary, which Bartholomew says is of vital importance for the survival of the Greek Orthodox clergy.

“I expressed my congratulations to the prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] for his efforts to protect the rights of religious minorities. I am very pleased to hear his decision to reopen the Halki Seminary on Heybeliada,” Obama stated following a private talk with Erdoğan on Sunday morning.

The two leaders have held wide-ranging talks covering Syria, Iran, the fight against terrorism and the protection of minorities on the eve of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul.

On Monday, Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis also claimed that opening the seminary is an important issue in terms of minority rights in Turkey. Bagis also criticized Greece for not taking similar steps to protect the rights of its Turkish Muslim population.

“The opening of the seminary is not a threat for Turkey. It would, on the contrary, be an asset … While taking these steps, Turkey stressed the importance of concurrent initiatives by Greek authorities in terms extending religious rights of the Muslim population in Greece. Greece should be aware of its democratic responsibilities as an EU member country,” Bagis stated.

Turkish minorities have major problems in Greece, such as the right to receive education and the right to elect a religious leader (mufti) for the Turkish community.

During a meeting with former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou on March 22 in Istanbul, Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew praised Turkish plans to reopen the seminary, according to media reports.

“We [the Turkish Orthodox community] can be hopeful for the reopening of the seminary in the near future,” stated Bartholomew.

Turkey was listed in a 2012 US report on religious freedoms as being among the world’s worst violators of religious freedoms. The report, which was prepared by the bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), caused widespread outrage among Turkish politicians.

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12:25pm, Thu 29 Mar 2012

James Mates: Europe Editor

– last updated Thu 29 Mar 2012

  • World
  • Spain

A general strike in Spain today looks as if it is being pretty well supported.

Flights, trains and bus services have all been widely disrupted, TV stations are off the air, factories including the big car makers SEAT, Renault and VW have stopped work.

A shop door is plastered with strike stickers during a general strike in Madrid
A shop door is plastered with strike stickers during a general strike in Madrid Credit: Reuters

Unions claim that 85% of workers in the food sector have joined the strike. Significant as this is, tomorrow is a much bigger day for Spain as the Government announces an austerity package that will dwarf even that of the Greeks in severity.

We may be about to find out just how much tolerance the Spanish people have for cuts on this scale.

Despite some swingeing cutbacks under the outgoing Socialist Government of José-Luis Zapatero, Spain has comprehensively missed it deficit targets as set by the European Commission under the new Fiscal Union Treaty.

It has a lot of catching up to do.

Tomorrow the Government is likely to announce budget cuts of around €50bn, maybe more.

  • That will mean every Government department cutting its spending by 14-15%
  • Some tax rises thrown in for good measure
  • Deficit must be cut from 8.5% of GDP to 3% in just 2 years
  • That may be setting a new definition of too far, too fast!

We are in uncharted territory as to what this might do to the Spanish economy. It has already slipped back into recession for the second time in three years.

It’s predicted that another million will soon join the dole queues, in a country that already has the highest unemployment in Europe at 23%, with more than half of under-25s out of work.

You don’t have to be called Cassandra to see that this may be a recipe for social unrest.

Demonstrators push rubbish bins to block the street during the general strike in Barcelona
Demonstrators push rubbish bins to block the street during the general strike in Barcelona Credit: Press Association

The Government of Mariano Rajoys Peoples Party is barely 3 months old, but the honeymoon is long over.

These budget cuts had been delayed in the hope that the conservatives might score a famous victory in the perennially socialist region of Andalusia at the weekend, but no such luck.

The Spanish people decisively threw out the last lot in disgust at where the Socialists had taken the economy, but it doesn’t mean that they are any happier with seeing conservatives pile austerity upon austerity.

Is any of this politically possible? The markets are beginning to doubt it, with the interest rate that lenders are demanding from Spain for 10 year loans rising again at 5.5% – much higher now than Italy’s.

It was reported, and then hurriedly denied, that the European Commission wants Spain to start taking European bail-out money. There is clearly a feeling that the country that first gave us Los Indignados may not have the stomach for cuts on the scale demanded.

And if they don’t?

The Rajoy Government is surely too recently elected to be deposed in the way that Silvio Berlusconi and Georgios Papandreou were in Italy and Greece.

Fines could certainly be levied under the new Treaty so recently signed, though its hard to see how that would make the situation better.

Or it could be accepted in Brussels that the vicious cycle of austerity followed by recession followed by collapsing Government revenues followed by more austerity… may not the way forward. But don’t bet you mortgage on that happening.

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