NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The withdrawal of a book from Greek Cypriot high school classes over a disputed reference to modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on Thursday triggered a war of words between Turkey and the ethnically-split island nation’s education ministry.
The Greek Cypriot Education Ministry this week pulled the book used to teach Grade 11 English because it said it was too effusive in its praise of Ataturk, saying his legacy was marred by “crimes against entire peoples.”
The book was formally ordered withdrawn after English teachers were hastily told the “rip the page” with the reference to Ataturk from the book. That stirred a flurry of denouncements on social media and elsewhere criticizing the ministry of censorship.
The ministry defended its decision, insisting that the book is freely available in Cyprus but that doesn’t mean it should be used for teaching English.
“It’s not possible for books being used for instruction in our schools to portray Kemal Ataturk as a paradigm of a moral leader who ‘benefited the people’,” the ministry said in a statement Thursday. “Because, as it’s well known, Ataturk and the Young Turks are responsible for crimes against people like the Armenian Genocide, of the Pontian Greeks, the Assyrians.”
Cyprus was split along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded following a coup aimed at union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the book’s withdrawal “reveals the radical level of the distorted mentality of the Greek Cypriot Administration towards Turkey” and that Greek Cypriots “do not have the tolerance” to live together with Turkish Cypriots.
Breakaway Turkish Cypriots called the decision “a new example of the racist stance of the Greek Cypriot administration” and a “reflection of the increasingly hostile behavior” of the Greek Cypriot side which “cannot tolerate the Turkish existence on the island and cannot digest the glorious history of the Turkish nation.”
The island's Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades suggested the matter could have been handled differently and said he would be speaking with Education Minister Prodromos Prodromou.
“I don't care what Turkey's Foreign Ministry says," Anastasiades told reporters. "I care about how to deal with a 21st Century problem which possibly could have been handled differently."
Turks still revere Ataturk, who carved out modern Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I.
But the personality cult that grew around him has been gradually fading. Current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has harked back to the glory days of the height of the Ottoman Empire to whip up patriotic sentiment.