By Ayla Jean Yackley
ZEYTINLI, Turkey (Reuters) - Four children began classes this week at a Greek school on a remote Turkish island, becoming the first students to enroll here in almost 50 years and giving their tiny community hope of enduring in its ancient homeland.
Closed in 1964 at a time of high tensions with Greece over Cyprus, Agios Theodoros Primary School's re-opening on Gokceada is a part of European Union aspirant Turkey's efforts to address a troubled past and expand rights for some minorities.
Dressed neatly and carrying comic-book character backpacks, the three boys and one girl, aged 5 to 9, stood mostly still for the Turkish anthem on Monday and entered their brightly painted school after the first bell was rung.
"We hope these are just the first children. If more come, it means success for our survival on the island," said Maria Berber, whose son Dimitri, 5, started first grade.
The step is welcomed not only by the Greek community of the Aegean island but also by the European Parliament, which said earlier this year re-opening the school was a sign of Turkey's commitment to European values.
While Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government, which has roots in an Islamist movement, faces criticism for slow progress on some minority rights reforms, it has done away with many restrictions on education, property and religion that helped reduce the number of ethnic Greeks in Turkey to 3,000 from 50,000 a half-century ago.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told Reuters the government sees broadening rights for minorities as the barometer of democratic freedoms.
"These four children starting school ... are our citizens and our country's wealth. Meeting the needs of members of minority groups is a good indicator of our country's democracy," Arinc said a written response to questions.
Erdogan is expected to announce a comprehensive package to boost minority rights at the end of this month. Most pressing is the question of greater cultural and political freedoms for the Kurds, whose 29-year insurgency has claimed more than 40,000 lives. Turkey is also home to 60,000 Armenians and about 20,000 Jews.
Some critics say the changes still fall short and Erdogan's top-down style is at odds with the spirit of reforms.
"The government views (rights reforms) through the perspective of religion, rather than from an appreciation for universal values," said Mehmet Altan, a political analyst and economist at Istanbul University.
"Otherwise, we would see far more measures taken for Greeks as well as other minorities."
PROMISE OF MORE TO COME
Erdogan's reform package may include reopening a Greek Orthodox seminary in Istanbul, shut in 1971 in what the EU has called a violation of religious freedom and a hurdle in Turkey's stalled bid to join the bloc. Greeks also have difficulty inheriting and registering property.
But many say life for ethnic Greeks has improved, in line with Ankara's warmer ties with Athens. While sharp differences remain, especially over the divided island of Cyprus and Aegean Sea territorial disputes, the traditional rivals have grown closer, not least because it serves both to reduce military spending in tight budgets, said Altan.
For the Greeks of Gokceada - who call themselves Imbriots after the isle's ancient name Imbros - Agios Theodoros holds the promise of reversing their numbers' decline.
"Opening the school is a great change in fortune. How many people are given the chance to go back ... and correct a historical wrong?" said Anna Koutsomalli, who led efforts to re-open the school in the leafy village of Zeytinli, which is pockmarked with the rubble of 200-year-old stone houses.
Like other families, Koutsomalli's parents sent her to Istanbul in 1974 at age 6 to attend a Greek boarding school.
About 100 children were enrolled at the time Agios Theodoros was closed. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 250 million Greek Orthodox, is a graduate.
Today, just 200 mostly elderly Greeks reside year-round on Gokceada, the largest group of ethnic Greeks after Istanbul's.
Fifty years ago, 6,000 Greeks lived here, spared expulsion in a population exchange that displaced 1.5 million Greeks and 500,000 Turks after World War One.
But official harassment picked up in the 1960s as ties with Greece soured. Media have cited state security documents showing Turkey worried Imbriots would break off to join Greece.
Private land was expropriated. An open prison was set up, and its inmates attacked, robbed and terrified the islanders. Later, thousands of mainland Turks were resettled on the island.
In 1970, the state changed the name to Gokceada from Imbros.
RETURN TO THE ISLAND
Today the windswept isle attracts migrating flamingoes and surfers. Herds of goats and sheep roam freely through wild olive groves and rocky scrubland baked brown in the Aegean sun.
Several military outposts still dot the island, vestiges of the security threat the territory was once thought to pose.
Five years of economic crisis in Greece - and rapid growth in Turkey - has prompted some Imbriots to consider a return, said Paris Asanakis, head of the Imravian Association of Athens.
Obstacles persist. Reclaiming Turkish citizenship can take months. Greek islanders want some property held by the state returned to provide newcomers with a source of income.
In June, a Greek woman was shot and killed and her daughter wounded in a dispute with a Turkish neighbor, frightening away some parents this school year, Asanakis said.
For Imbriots to come back, the legal framework needs to change. The statute that shuttered the school remains on the books, he said.
"This was a political decision allowing the school to open. People want to know the political will won't change again."
Still, some are putting down roots.
Two babies were born in August and a third is due soon, the first births in the community in four decades, said Asanakis.
At Agios Theodoros' opening, two dozen former students, including Dimitri Zorlu, 66, gathered to see the new pupils.
"For years it felt like nothing was left but the ruins of our houses and orchards. Today is a turning point. The school gives us hope where before there was none," Zorlu said.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)