The situation in the Middle East and differing designations over Hamas were the two points over which visiting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his host, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, publicly disagreed on Monday in Ankara, while at the same time playing up a burgeoning rapprochement.

Erdogan: More than 1,000 Hamas fighters being treated in Turkey

Mitsotakis referred to terrorist group in describing the organization that attack southern Israel on Oct. 7 last year, while Erdogan replied that his administration considers Hamas as a “resistance group”. The latter also emphasized, in fact, that more than 1,000 Hamas fighters are being treated in Turkish hospitals at present.

Erdogan-Mitsotakis meeting

The Greek leader arrived in the morning for a closely watched working visit, with practically the entire gamut of Greek-Turkish relations, including differences, discussed – a far cry from the 2020-2022 period when bilateral relations deteriorated in the wake of inflammatory and bellicose rhetoric by the Turkish side. An official dinner followed the contacts and press briefing, while Mitsotakis was due to return to Greece in the evening.

Erdogan-Mitsotakis meeting

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, May 13, 2024. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/PPO/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES (File: 2024-05-13T141004Z_284853206_RC2QP7AAQF4T_RTRMADP_5_TURKEY-GREECE.JPG )

While differences were evident, a tremendous improvement in relations since both Mitsotakis and Erdogan were re-elected last year was also clearly on display, with recent achievements showcased, such as an express visa scheme that allows Turkish citizens to visit 10 Greek isles without previously requiring a consulate stamp.

In beginning the post Erdogan-Mitsotakis meeting press briefing – without questions being fielded – the Turkish leader referred to improved bilateral relations and characterized his contacts on the day with Mitsotakis as “very productive”. He said the goal is for bilateral trade ties to exceed a value of 10 billion USD.

The Turkish president also referred to “terrorist groups that must be dealt with”, as well as what he called the “Turkish minority” in Greece.

Greek PM replies to quip over ‘Turkish minority’

When Mitsotakis began his statements, he reminded that the Muslim minority in the northeast Thrace province is known in international treaties by that name, and not as the “Turkish minority”, with its members enjoying all rights as EU and Greek citizens.

Earlier, Erdogan again turned to the violence in the Middle East, referring to a “slaughter” in Gaza. The oft-described Islamist Turkish leader said the only solution is the establishment of a Palestinian state with 1967’s borders and with Jerusalem as its capital.
“We’re expecting Greece to back international efforts for peace in Gaza,” he said.

Returning to bilateral relations with his western neighbor, Greece, he said every meeting with Greek leadership increases the hope for solutions.

On his part, Mitsotakis referred to a so-called “positive agenda” now apparently defining official contacts over the past year or so. Among others, he hailed the establishment of a Greek-Turkish chamber of commerce, “despite differences and difficulties”, as a lever to boost trade and entrepreneurship.

Speaking before rolling cameras and numerous journalists in the presidential mansion in Ankara, Mitsotakis directly played up his government’s initiative to inaugurate the express visa scheme for 10 Greek isles in the eastern Aegean.

In other issues, he said bilateral cooperation to stem illegal immigration is bearing fruit. As such, he said EU funding of Turkey to deal with the issue must continue.

Chora Church’s conversion brought up by Greek side

Mitsotakis also brought up the recent re-conversion of the medieval Byzantine-era Chora cathedral or monastery in Istanbul to a mosque, called in Turkish the Kariye Mosque. Erdogan, on his part, said the reconversion had been planned for some time and that now the building will be open to all visitors.

Mitsotakis said there was a discussion with Mr. Erdogan about Athens’ dissatisfaction from the conversion, stressing that it is important to preserve the monument’s cultural character.

Referring to the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, Mitsotakis emphasized that Israel had every right to defend itself, characterizing Hamas as a terrorist group.

At the same time, although he said both sides disagreed over the issue, they did agree that civilians must be protected and that the only viable solution is a return to diplomacy.

The Greek prime minister said he and the Greek delegation’s members put the Cyprus issue in the same context, with dialogue being the key to resolution.

Finally, he reminded that Athens continues to support Turkey’s accession to the European Union.

“My friend Kyriakos, there’s an issue we disagree on: Hamas is not a terrorist group, it’s a resistance group fighting to protect the lands of its people.”

A view of the press briefing after the Erdogan-Mitsotakis meeting.