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Press Conference of Minister of Foreign Affairs, N. Kotzias, following the proceedings of the 2nd Int’l Conference on Religious and Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East (Athens, 30-31 October 2017)
N. KOTZIAS: The 2nd International Conference on Religious and Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East is yet another initiative Greece has taken, among the 14 international formats, cooperation schemes and organizations it has built over the past two and a half years.
As you know, the subject of this Conference is religious and cultural dialogue, protection of the freedom of people of different cultures and different religions, protection of the religious and cultural communities that exist – and were more widespread in the past – in the Middle East, as well as the fact that what many states of Western Europe and the West are pursuing through multicultural society – as an element of collectivity – and existed in this region for 2,000 years is part of the wealth of all humanity; wealth that must not be lost.
The Conference was held in defence of tolerance of and respect for difference, because diversity is an element of the development of society and, according to our religious leaders, an element of the divine proposal.
Thirty-eight different delegations participated, 168 delegations together with officials and religious leaders, 320 people, all in all, who are concerned with this topic, deal with and play an important role in it in various countries in our region.
This policy of International Conferences is founded on and fuels our foreign policy. A proactive and multidimensional foreign policy, against the isolationism; a policy that has started gaining supporters in Greece.
As the Archbishop of Albania, a wise person, rightly said, closing oneself off leads to death, and not to development. It is a dialogue among people who believe that we must talk to each other, and even with our enemies, because it is not diplomacy, it is essentially not a democratic stance, to say that I speak only with those who agree with me.
It was a dialogue on the protection of human rights. Human rights are not protected in the way we hear about, only in a number of countries or international institutions. Actions for the protection of these kinds of communities are required – communities like the religious and cultural communities in the Middle East that are in the process of being uprooted or even destroyed.
We talked about our role in this region, how we will sustain the youth in these communities, the importance of the environment and, in particular, of cultural heritage and how we will ensure that the cultural heritage will return to the places from where it was plundered, and how the populations will return; populations that were forced to become refugees, uprooted from the countries where wars are being fought today.
We came to certain conclusions that lead to more intensive cooperation. I will set them out for you as I did at the end of the Conference and as I noted them. The agreement has ten points.
The first is for us to promote the issue of these communities at the UN and in the European Union, and to provide substantial data on the human rights topics.
The second is to publish the speeches of the religious and political leaders in digital and print form. All of the heads of the Churches participated, our Patriarchs, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Patriarch of Alexandria, representatives from the Patriarchates of Moscow and Antioch, Archbishops, including the Archbishop of Albania; we had the Deputy Secretary of State of the Vatican, Muftis, Rabbis. Representatives of all the major religions participated.
We decided to hold the next Conference in October 2019. There was a thought that we might hold it in another country, but the majority – everyone, I would say – want and love Athens, and they will support this initiative as it remains in the hands of Greek foreign policy.
We decided, all together, to support the Centre for Religious Pluralism in the Middle East, which we have in Athens, under the Direction of my very good colleague Sotiris Roussos, an Arabist of international reputation. And very important work is being done at this Centre.
As you know, during the 1st Conference we agreed with two states, one western and one Arab, Austria and the United Arab Emirates, to cooperate on the preparation of the 2nd Conference, and I thank them. This is yet another form of positive international cooperation. And there are other states that want to participate in the preparation of the 3rd Conference.
We put forward many ideas about cooperation with the mass media and how religious and cultural freedom can be promoted. We agreed that we should invite more people from the culture sector in the future, to carry out studies and take initiatives.
I also want to tell you that, at the end of the Conference, we honoured Kyriakos Amiridis, our Ambassador, who worked very hard and creatively on the preparations for the 1st International Conference. Subsequently, as you know, he took on the post of Ambassador to Brazil, where his family and daughter were living.
As you know, Kyriakos, who was a personal friend of mine, was victim of a criminal act in Brazil. I think this was the right place to honour him and to remind us of the important work done by these people, who often remain behind the scenes. Wonderful people.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs comprises an impressive array of people and, thanks to the work these people do – whether they are diplomats, experts, administrative employees, or from other branches – we can exercise foreign policy, we can host these kinds of international conferences, which require a vast amount of organizational work.
Therefore, I want to thank all my associates at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from all of the branches and of all ranks, who enable Greece to be present and creative in foreign policy. Without the Ministry’s people, we cannot hold conferences like this.
I would also like to thank the people of the hotel, who made every effort so that we could meet the demands of such a large conference could be met.
And I thank you for coming as well. As promised, I will answer some questions about the Conference, but also any other questions you might have, without our going on at length. I don’t have breaks from work. I have to return to the Ministry, which, as you know, is like a heart – it works 24 hours a day.
REPORTER: Minister, my question concerns the Conference: The losses in countries of the Middle East where wars are ongoing – did you discuss how these losses will be remedied and how the other religious leaders will contribute?
N. KOTZIAS: You are absolutely right that these communities were lost. The onset of these losses was the reason we held the 1st Conference. In the period between the 1st and 2nd Conferences, a number of things happened that I described in my proposal to the Conference.
My concern is that the strong western powers and organizations are not dealing enough with these issues. I set out some friendly thoughts with regard to the UN and some critical observations with regard to the European Union. You have to consider that this creates a climate, in some countries, “of non-defence”, in general, of religious and cultural communities, but specifically of the Christian communities, which were lost to a great extent.
We talked about thoughts and measures for ensuring the return of these people and their families, and how we can protect cultural heritage.
Between the 1st and 2nd Conferences, we had the signing of the Treaty of Nicosia on the protection of cultural property, a Cypriot initiative in support of this endeavour of ours. There was an agreement in principle that, in order to further develop practical measures, we will hold a special Conference between the 2nd and 3rd Conferences, next year, that is, with the aim of promoting the measures we considered here.
REPORTER: Minister, you had a number of bilateral meetings here, yesterday and today, with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, Palestine; Deputy Ministers of Albania, Romania, Iraq; and with your Egyptian counterpart, as well as with many religious leaders. Could you tell us a few things about those meetings, the climate? Thank you.
N. KOTZIAS: The meetings started on Sunday evening. I had and in-depth three-hour meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus. I briefed him first on my trips to the U.S. and to Turkey, in which he had a direct interest, and we exchanged views on the further course of the Cyprus issue.
On Monday morning, before the Conference, I had a meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, who has specific concerns about the fate of the Christian populations in this region. Then I met all the others, ten in number; I met all of the religious leaders in bilateral meetings, apart from the Patriarch of Jerusalem, with whom I will meet after this press conference.
In these meetings, we talked about how Greece can help the various religious leaders in their work for the protection of the cultural heritage and lives of the people in their regions. You know that I have a very deep and personal appreciation of the work of the Archbishop of Albania. He has built schools, he has built hospitals, he has a University School (college), he has done wonderful work.
The coincidence is that Anastasios of Albania studied and later taught at the University in Marburg, Germany, where I also taught during the 1990s. I have a special relationship with the Patriarch of Alexandria, Theodoros, and we have secured the support of the Egyptian state at his headquarters.
He is a great missionary of Orthodox Christianity, he is a person who walks barefoot to bring aid to isolated regions. It is a different kind of Church from the church of proselytism, of the West, which we saw under colonialism.
I spoke with our Ecumenical Patriarch about the problems of the Church and of Hellenism in the country where the Ecumenical Patriarchate is based. I briefed him on my meetings in Turkey.
During my trip to Turkey, we took some small – apart from the major issues – but positive steps, like the functioning of the schools for the Greek community and the Greeks of Imbros. There, we have nursery schools, an elementary school, a junior high school and a high school. These will go back into operation, albeit limited operation, but it is a new development.
Thanks to our policy and the policy of the Patriarchate, and to the acceptance of this issue by the Turkish government, the Hellenism of Imbros once again has vibrant schools.
I informed him that the Turkish side committed, at long last, to the holding of elections at the Greek charitable organizations of Istanbul. There, elections have not been held at the hospital for 25 years, and in some charitable organizations the last elections were in 2013, if I remember correctly. We touched upon issues of the Church’s international presence.
I had a meeting with the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs. We talked about the trilateral cooperation we have with Cyprus and the promotion of our bilateral relations in critical sectors, which I won’t go into right now.
I was very pleased to meet with my friend Riad Malki, the Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs. I would like to take this opportunity to remind the Greek Public Administration that the country the Palestinians come from is Palestine, and it must be referred to as such in public documents, as the Hellenic Parliament has taken a relevant decision. Bureaucratically, this sometimes isn’t adequately implemented.
I briefed him on the proposals we are making, not publicly, to promote a solution that will facilitate the definitive consolidation and recognition of the Palestinian state.
I met with the Deputy Ministers of Albania and Romania, and I had other bilateral meetings. A number of meetings were held, and I think that these international conferences are a good opportunity for many bilateral meetings to be held. In this case, I also had the opportunity to meet with religious leaders, beyond the Ministers of third states. If I remember correctly, there were ten or eleven of us, Ministers, even though this wasn’t a ministerial meeting. A large number, I would say.
JOURNALIST: Minister, the Russian army is completing the liberation of Syria from the terrorists, and the liberation of Deir ez-Zor is currently under way. It is liberation, not the fall of the city, as Greek newspapers are reporting. The situation now is radically different from what it was two years ago, when the 1st Conference was held. The post-war reconstruction of Syria is now on the table.
Minister, will Greece and the European Union take part in the reconstruction? Will there be some plan for the reconstruction of Syria? Thank you.
N. KOTZIAS: Greek foreign policy supports and hopes for peace in Syria, for the return of the large portion of its population, because, as I underscored in my speech, you can’t protect human rights without human lives. And very often, in the name of human rights, human lives are destroyed.
The primary good and prerequisite for the existence of rights is people’s survival. Greece, to the small degree it could, did this.
The second thing I want to say regards the Greek Embassy in Syria which closed in 2012. I have sent a diplomat to our Embassy in Beirut, with responsibility for the Embassy in Damascus, which is in good condition.
As you know, I went personally and inspected our Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, and we are now taking the security measures that will be needed – because very enhanced measures are needed in Libya as well – to reopen our Embassy, which is in good condition. We owe many thanks to the guards at our Embassies abroad, who stayed and kept them in good condition.
Greece believes that every country should belong to its people. “Syria belongs to the Syrians”, as goes an old slogan of the Communist International, from the decade of the 1930s, which was remembered by some other powers. Democracy function has to be restored in Syria. The rights of all of the communities and ethnic groups must be safeguarded.
It is widely known that Russia made a proposal – an initial proposal, I imagine – for formulating a new Constitution. I know that its direct allies on the ground in Syria do not yet share the same opinion. But these decisions must be made by the Syrian people themselves. What the European Union needs to do, with Greece contributing, is to help, when the Syrian people believe the right moment has come, with the reconstruction of the country, which has been devastated.
I estimate, from the data we have, that 12 to 14 million Syrians, of a total of 25 million, have abandoned their homes. They have to return and rebuild their country with technical assistance, funding and anything else that is needed from organizations and institutions such as the European Union.
JOURNALIST: Minister, I heard the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs mention problems of the minorities in Europe. You said you will be meeting soon with the leadership of the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We had some demolitions in Himara today. I would like you to comment on that.
N. KOTZIAS: In granting candidate-country status to Albania, the EU did not set the conditions that should have been set. In the process for starting negotiations, the Commission set one condition (Key Priority), Justice. We put forward an additional four conditions, and they were adopted.
Included in these five conditions is the matter of property and the protection of property, as well as the matter of the protection of the minority. We are in a process of negotiations for the Association Council. In the latest round of negotiations, which took place while I was here – but, as you know, I always monitor developments and issue instructions – I think we had good phrasings in the text of the European Union. Of course we highlight that the minority must enjoy the right of self-determination, not based on the old practices of the Hoxha regime, which recognized minorities only in zones and not outside, one had to be registered in one of these zones to be recognized as a member of a minority.
There was an inclination in our neighbouring country to keep things that way. I believe the negotiations at the European Union will go well and we will creatively overcome this restriction.
The second condition concerns ownership. At that time, under the Hoxha regime, so-called “socialization” was carried out, which included small privately-owned property. When the Hoxha regime fell, deeds of ownership were not granted. In recent months, we strived to delay any spatial planning moves on the part of the Albanian authorities, so that deeds of ownership could be granted.
The granting of deeds of ownership is good in two ways: First, you can get an injunction for the protection of your property, and second, if the State proceeds to expropriation, it has to compensate you, as is the case throughout the world. But for the real value of the property, not a false valuation. The properties demolished so far do not concern properties with secured deeds or for which injunctions were sought. They are essentially properties without owners, or properties whose owners did not get an injunction. With the exception of the petrol station, with which the demolitions started. There was a discussion at the Energy Ministry regarding the petrol station, and there was a promise from the Energy Ministry and its Deputy Minister, late yesterday afternoon, that a permit will be issued for the owner to open a petrol station elsewhere. We insist and will insist on the fulfilment of this promise.
We cannot prohibit redevelopment in a third country. But we want the property rights, particularly those of the minority – a combination of two factors – to be protected. For the time being, the work has been halted. And by ‘for the time being’ I mean as far as I knew twenty minutes ago.
REPORTER: Minister, based on the presentation and speech made by the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs, I would like to ask if you made any decisions, if you took any measures concerning the education of young refugees from the Middle East who are in Greece at this time. Thank you.
N. KOTZIAS: We in the European Union, in the framework of our foreign policy, supported and promoted a plan for the creation of industrial parks in a number of states hosting refugees, as well as plans for training migrants. The other issues concern the Ministries of Education and Interior.
But I imagine and believe that, to the extent that we can, we will take the necessary measures. Personally, my experience is that refugee children, migrants who are students, and foreign university students, including in my graduate programme, were always among the best. I was fortunate to have students from 29 different states, and still, today, in countries from Vietnam to Albania, many of these students are now university professors, and I meet with them.
I think it is creative and productive for our country to educate these people. These are people with a profound desire to do something better with their lives. Also, as you know, on 13 and 14 December we are expecting the Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs, whom I invited in September, when we were at the UN General Assembly. I hope to see you at the joint press conference we will be holding.
JOURNALIST: You met yesterday morning with the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, if I’m not mistaken. I would like to ask whether you discussed the migration issue, which I assume you did. Can you tell us something more about your meeting and your decisions?
N. KOTZIAS: I hope this doesn’t disappoint you, but we didn’t talk about the migration issue. What we did discuss was this: We have two cooperation schemes in the Balkans, in Southeast Europe. One is what I call the cross-border cooperation, between fYROM, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece. Our latest two-day meeting was in October, in Thessaloniki.
The second is the cooperation configuration that met most recently in September, in New York. It is between the EU member states of Southeast Europe: Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Greece and Bulgaria are participating in both of these cooperation configurations, with the other two countries varying.
In June 2017 I made a proposal to the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, for a meeting between the four European Union member states of Southeast Europe and the four Visegrad countries. A meeting of eight. This is scheduled to take place on 4 December. It will take place in Budapest.
The items on the agenda will include topics ranging from energy to the future of Europe. As you know, I have a great deal of experience – whether good or bad – from the negotiations on a number of treaties and key agreements in the European Union of the 1990s.
The alliances we formed at that time, on which I did a great deal of work, were among mid-size states. Every time we go to negotiations on changes in the institutional system of the European union, the interests are no longer North-South, East-West; there is also a balance of power based on– from one perspective, not from all – the size of states.
Consequently, we need to shape long-term cooperation on these types of issues and exchange views on the future of Europe and the institutional system.
I want to make a more general observation, which I also make to the responsible personnel at our Ministry. The European Union is carrying out two separate debates. One is on enlargement, particularly towards the countries of the Western Balkans, the six countries, and the six, but mainly three, of the Eastern Neighbourhood, and a separate debate on the future of Europe.
My experience teaches me that in the end there will be another debate. In the name of enlargement with new member states, a debate will open on the institutional functioning of the European Union, the number of Commissioners, votes, etc. This debate is not taking place now, but the two being carried out now will lead to its arising as a third debate. And because this third debate concerns power-sharing in the European Union, it is good for one to get a head start.
On 4 December, in Budapest, we will also be looking at the issue of EU cohesion funds, which, for political reasons and because of the Brexit, many powers will try to limit. And we are not among those powers, of course.
That is what the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and I talked about yesterday morning.
JOURNALIST: You met with the Ecumenical Patriarch a short while ago. I would like to ask you if you happened to talk at all about the current situation in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, regarding the economic problems that exist, as well as the acceptance of the Archbishop by the Greek American community. What is the position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on this? Do you have a comment?
N. KOTZIAS: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs neither directs nor gets involved in the Church’s affairs. It always listens attentively to anyone who wants to talk about any issue. The main thing I discussed with the Ecumenical Patriarch was the overall promotion of Orthodoxy in the world, and the cooperation with the Greek state.
JOURNALIST: Minister, in the trilateral cooperation schemes you have with the countries of the Middle East and Africa – that is, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt – there are differences with regard to the religious dimension. That is, these are Muslim countries, while Greece and Cyprus are Christian ones. Is there a discussion on the level of cooperation and better understanding with regard to this?
And a second question regarding Mount Athos, which has been playing a role lately. Will the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as supervising Authority of Mount Athos, take any initiatives?
And if you are to take certain initiatives and decisions concerning Mount Athos, when will you be visiting it? Thank you.
N. KOTZIAS: In the trilateral schemes, we, Ministers of Foreign Affairs, do not look at religion issues. In the trilateral cooperation schemes of Education Ministers education issues are looked upon, and so, possibly, at religious education issues as well – I don’t know exactly. And we also have cooperation on diaspora issues, which overlap with education issues, and that is in Minister Terens Quick’s portfolio.
With regard to Mount Athos, it is certainly something we are monitoring and that it is certainly something we are monitoring and that requires our closer attention in the future.
JOURNALIST: Minister, as you allowed us to broaden the spectrum of questions, I would like to ask you about the Turkish President’s upcoming visit to Athens, what you expect from this visit, following your three-hour meeting with the Cypriot Minister of Foreign Affairs, as the agenda is certain to include the Cyprus problem.
And a questions about our Conference here. As you noted, it is good for western countries to get involved in this effort – countries like Austria and Hungary – with the Arab countries. However, when it comes to burden sharing, these countries behave differently. Is this not a contradiction? Thank you very much.
N. KOTZIAS: The two questions have a common answer, first of all; that you do not do foreign policy only with those with whom you agree. I have drawn lessons from the theorem that, if everyone agreed with us, or if we agreed with everyone, there would be no need for foreign policy. There would be a single global policy. There are such theories. There is a whole school in Germany that is very well known in Central European countries.
The second theory is that of isolationism. I said something about this is my initial remarks. I have the sense that some people are criticizing us from an isolationist standpoint.
In other words, if I want to invite Erdogan, I have to agree and go along with everything? If he isn’t with us on some issue, why am I inviting him? Therefore, I should not talk to anyone who doesn’t agree with me. Basically, I shouldn’t talk to anyone in the region. I should talk only to those who don’t criticize me.
But that is not how it is. Diplomacy is especially necessary when there are disputes. What does diplomacy do? It talks when there are disputes, so that “others” don’t talk. If you want to calm tensions, if you want to create channels of communication, then you need diplomacy. Thus, the discussion I had in Turkey recently had one aim: to re-establish channels of communication, because the way our aircrafts and ships ‘interact’ in the Aegean could lead to an accident, a mistake. I’m not saying a ‘heated incident’. I’m saying an accident or a mistake. With whom do I speak to avert this, and with whom will I speak if it happens, if we aren’t talking to each other ?
I have the following theory: When you don’t converse, the risk of a small mistake turning into an avalanche increases. I’m not saying this eventuality is ruled out, just because you talk to each another. What I’m saying is that you limit the risk.
And I want to say – in spite of what has been written in the newspapers and heard from certain circles – that over the past five days, Turkish airplanes have come out only on one day. I don’t know what has happened today, but if I was correctly informed by Mr. Yennimatas, yesterday was the fourth day on which there were no violations or overflights.
I want to tell you something. Not that I am a minimalist, but even a single day without incidents or the risk of collisions is a win for Greek diplomacy. Because when diplomacy speaks, one can sleep sounder. I don’t mean myself. I’m not allowed to sleep, just to be clear on this.
But the sense that the risks of or margins for or probability of an accident are reduced is to the country’s benefit. I don’t understand those who don’t want the tensions to be eased, unless they live off high tensions. I’m not that kind of person.
And I want to take this opportunity to repeat something I’ve said before: Diplomacy requires great calm and great composure. I’m not a bully looking to settle a grudge. And I am making this clarification because there are some, saying that I held a grudge against the Spanish Ambassador, etc. In fact, one newspaper is doing such good journalism that it dedicated seven articles to this same topic today. One would call it “Pluralism of opinion”.
The fact that we want peace, dialogue and understanding doesn’t mean that we let anything slide with regard to Turkey or anyone else. I personally – our government is the only government, and, as far as I remember, I am the only Minister of Foreign Affairs not to let anything slide.
But there are some people who play the expert on issues they do not know. I remind you that, when I withdrew our Ambassador to the Czech Republic for four months, for four days I was harshly criticized for how discourteously I was behaving towards an EU member state that was disparaging us. I remind you that they apologized to us. In the coming days, we will come back to this historical example.
COORDINATOR: I think we concluded. Thank you very much.
N. KOTZIAS: I thank you for your effort to be here.