Istanbul, Compass – In official audiences which attracted considerable attention by the Turkish media in Ankara, the Orthodox leader met first with Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul on August 8, followed by an audience August 28 with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Patriarch Bartholomew told reporters after both visits that while discussing “the problems of the Greek church and patriarchate” with the two leaders, he had raised specifically the issue of Halki’s closure as a matter of freedom of religion and conscience in Turkey.
“The prime minister told us that they will consider our problems with goodwill,” Bartholomew told the press after his meeting with Erdogan. “We hope that certain concrete results will be reached in the near future.”
Located on Heybeli Island off the coast of Istanbul, the Halki school was founded in 1844. As the principal center of religious instruction for the Greek Orthodox worldwide, the historic institution houses a library of some 50,000 volumes and can accommodate from 80 to 120 seminarians and theologians. But for the past 32 years, its doors have been locked.
Since 1971, Turkey’s minority Christian communities have been forbidden to provide religious training at the higher education level for their clergy. Both the Greek Orthodox Church’s Halki Theological School and the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church’s Holy Cross School were ordered closed under this law.
As a result, the number of trained Greek and Armenian clergy has dwindled steadily. Sending candidates abroad for religious studies proved to be a heavy financial burden for these small communities, and few priests have returned after graduation to minister in their mother church.
Less than 3,000 citizens of Greek origin remain in Turkey, but the much larger Armenian community numbers about 55,000. With 43 churches and another 16 communities without a church, the Armenian church in Turkey has only 18 ordained priests.
“We desperately need another 40 or 50 priests, but there is no place where we can train and prepare them,” a source in the Armenian church told Compass. “We can’t even organize classes for them without the government authorities protesting that we are breaking the law. Only private tutoring is legal!”
Meanwhile, the prestigious Orthodox seminary became a political football between Turkey and Greece in the 1990s, when Ankara insisted that Athens make special concessions for Greece’s Turkish minority in western Thrace as the “price-tag” for re-opening Halki.
But according to a Zaman newspaper report on August 9, the Turkish prime minister polled a Muslim mufti from Thrace on the issue during a visit this summer to Thessalonica. The Muslim leader reportedly told Erdogan, “There is no harm to anyone if they study at the Halki school.”
So the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears to be looking favorably upon the request, which some Turkish press reports say is inevitably linked to Turkey’s hard-paced bid for acceptance into the European Union.
Two days after Bartholomew met with Erdogan, Education Minister Huseyin Celik declared in an August 30 interview in Milliyet newspaper, “If people want to open their own theological school, what the state, the government and the education ministry must do is facilitate this. Don’t we open Muslim theological schools in Europe?”
However, Celik noted that it was “impossible” for such a school to be autonomous, claiming that nowhere in the world did such an arrangement exist. In order for the seminary to resume, he insisted, it was necessary for it to be under the control of either the Education Ministry or the Higher Council of Education.
But Bartholomew has argued that state controls contradict both the spirit and the letter of the Lausanne Treaty signed by Turkey in 1923.
Under Article 40 of the treaty, Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities were guaranteed the right to “establish, manage and control at their own expense any charitable, religious and social institutions, any schools and other establishments for instruction and education, with the right to use their own language and to exercise their own religion freely therein.”
Nevertheless, Bartholomew reiterated in a recent live television interview that the church would not reject reasonable educational controls over the operation of the Halki school, once the government permits it to reopen.
Featured live on CNN-Turk’s “Question-Answer” show hosted by Yavuz Baydar on September 8, Bartholomew admitted that since he became patriarch 12 years ago, none of Turkey’s governments had produced a single concrete result toward solving this critical problem of training future church leaders.
“This is a big injustice,” Bartholomew declared. “In the past, we have been treated as second-class citizens. But according to the principles of Ataturk and our Constitution, everyone is equal. So we are waiting with certainty. A political solution to this is very simple, and it should come very soon.”
One compromise proposal reportedly under discussion between government and church leaders is the formation of a Christian theological faculty within the Turkish university system. Such a system could link a basic liberal arts degree with a separate track devoted to religious instruction, including classical languages as well as theology.
“This could be an ecumenical institute, run jointly by all the churches in Turkey,” one church source commented. Once the theological students complete their university diploma, they would be prepared for formal ordination in their various church confessions.
Barbara G. Baker
Copyright 2003 Compass Direct