By Louis Meixler, Associated Press Writer
(AP)- The head of the Armenian church in Turkey urged European leaders to support Turkey's bid to join the European Union, saying postponing Turkish membership would undermine efforts to bring together the Muslim East and the Christian West.
The letter from Patriarch Mesrob II, which was released on Friday, comes amid fears of rising nationalism in Turkey if the country's EU bid collapses and just before EU foreign ministers hold an emergency meeting Sunday aimed at overcoming objections to starting entry talks with Turkey.
Armenian Christians, now numbering 70,000, are the largest non-Muslim minority in Turkey, and are the remnants of a community that was largely destroyed by deportations and massacres at the time of World War I. Minorities in Turkey have strongly supported the country's EU bid in the hopes of greater democratic reforms and freedoms. There are also concerns that if Turkey's EU bid falters, the country is likely to become more nationalistic.
In his letter, Mesrob stressed that delaying Turkish membership "will be a blow not only to Turkey and Europe but to reconciliation between East and West." "The aspiration of Turkey to join the European Union is an opportunity not only for Turkey and the European Union but for world peace that must not be lost," he wrote.
"Pressures in recent days from various circles to postpone Turkey's membership process cause us concern," he added. "We perceive such affairs as being far from helpful."
Turkey is scheduled to begin EU accession talks on Monday, but that starting date has been put into question as Austria insists that Turkey is offered the option of a lesser partnership rather than full membership. All 25 EU nations have to agree on a negotiating mandate before talks can begin with Ankara as scheduled on Monday.
Turkey has enacted sweeping changes aimed at gaining membership in the European Union, such as abolishing the death penalty, improving its democracy and expanding freedom of expression. But many Turks are now questioning whether they are prepared to make further changes and even give up some of their national sovereignty to a European Union that may not want them. Nationalists are planning a protest against EU membership on Sunday to try and capitalize on that anti-EU sentiment.
"Turkey has expended great effort to implement the union criteria and has in a positive sense been steered toward real change on the democratic road," Mesrob wrote. "However, because of oppositionist and suspicious attitudes directed toward Turkey, it seems as though it is being forced to take backward steps and turn in on itself."
Armenians say that 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks at the time of World War I, which Armenians and several nations around the world recognize as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the massacres were genocide, saying the death toll is inflated and Armenians were killed during civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.