Brussels (AsiaNews) EU heads of government will decide tomorrow whether to open talks with Turkey over its accession to the Union. Meantime, the European parliament adopted a non binding resolution in favour of negotiations by a margin of 407 to 262 with 29 abstentions. But Ankara's demand is controversial and has provoked a flurry of statements by political leaders.
Leaving this morning on his way to Brussels, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Europe "has an obligation to prove that it is not a Christian club" and accept the Turkish bid.
Turkey's population is 99 per cent Muslim. In the last two years, the Turkish government has adopted several laws to conform to European standards but its first bid to join what eventually became the European Union dates back to 1963.
International observers believe though that, despite changes such as the abolition of the death penalty and language guarantees for minorities, Turkey is still a long way from fulfilling the civil rights obligations demanded by the EU.
Human Rights Watch points out for instance that Turkey must overcome two major obstacles, namely torture and ill-treatment in police custody and the safe return of more than 350,000 internally displaced Kurds forced from their homes in the 1990s.
Religious freedom is also another unresolved problem. Non Muslim religious groups still lack official legal recognition.
Recently, Mgr Hippolyte Simon, Vice President of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), speaking on behalf of Europe's bishops, said they were surprised that the EU would open negotiations without linking them to the full respect of religious rights as the European Commission had stated in its report.
Europe's bishops said they were in favour of Turkey's membership because the rights of religious minorities could thus be recognised and membership in the EU could prevent the country from coming under the influence of Islamic fundamentalism.
In a television interview broadcast yesterday, French President Jacques Chirac said that he was in favour of Turkey's entry into the EU "because it is in the interest of Europe, especially France". Mr Chirac said he supported Turkey's demand as long as Ankara "met all the conditions placed on every candidate for membership". In Turkey's case, this also includes recognising the Armenian genocide of 1915 when 1.5 million Christian Armenians were killed.
For some historians, the Armenian genocide inspired the Nazis to carry out their own policy of mass murder against the Jews.
Yesterday, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said: "In the course of the accession negotiations, France will ask for recognition of [this] tragedy". However, a Turkish government spokesman responded saying that "there was no such genocide, so there is no question of recognising a genocide that did not happen."
Turkey has always denied responsibility for the slaughter of Armenians claiming that it was the result of "spontaneous acts of violence". (LF)