Turkey’s Greek Orthodox urges reopening of Halki seminary
A small police car is one of a handful of motor vehicles on Heybeliada (Halki) island off Istanbul. It escorts a phaeton to the Hill of Hope, where we climb with the Greek Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is the 270th holder of the title, to the Greek Orthodox seminary here, which has been closed since 1971.
This was hours before a forest fire started on the other end of the island, triggered by strong north winds and extinguished only by immense effort from fire extinguisher planes and helicopters in the evening hours.
But in the morning, as we entered the 168-year-old institution, the patriarch points at a statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Turkish Republic from the remains of the Ottoman Empire through the War of Liberation fought mainly against the invading Greek army.
“Look at Atatürk’s words inscribed under the bust,” he says ironically. “’The only leader of life is science’ [the words read]. Reading that now we can enter our building which cannot serve as a school.”
Inside, the classrooms, the restrooms, the dispenser, the tennis table are all ready for use as soon as the Turkish government will authorize a local education director of Istanbul.
The legal and financial framework is ready too. Dr. Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, the Metropolitan of Bursa who is set to be the dean of the seminary, if and when it is opened, as well Bartholomew’s probable successor, explains the protocols made with the University of Thessaloniki and contacts possible sponsors for the seminary.
The Halki Seminary designed to train Orthodox priests had been closed when private universities were shut down due to a Constitutional Court ruling after a domestic political row.
But the patriarch believes it’s all about politics. “We have paid the political bill of the Cyprus conflict,” he says, as the number of Turkey’s Greek Orthodox citizens has eroded down to some three thousand now. “We paid the bill of claimed wrongdoings against Muslims of Western Thrace in Greece. Now Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is mentioning a mosque in Athens. I have no objection to that, but neither have I any authority to do that,” he said.
Recalling promises made by Prime Minister Erdoğan and his ministers in the last ten years of Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) governments, Bartholomew says their patience has “exhausted already;” soon there will be no Turkish-born and trained Greek priests left to keep churches alive in the country.
“So far the government said that the public opinion and the opposition parties would not let it happen,” the 72-year-old patriarch said. “But now there is no visible public reaction to the reopening of the seminary. And in a dinner we had with Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), he not only admitted the former wrongdoings of his party during the one party regime (in place until the 1950s) against the government, but also promised to support the government’s initiative for it. Of course, we prefer the CHP to raise its voice as well, but that is a sign that they will not oppose.”
The Greek Orthodox community of Turkey is on one hand urging the government for an immediate reopening of the seminary and on the other hand considering legal options to force its reopening. This is likely to be an issue in Turkey’s relations with the European Union following the current six month EU presidency of Greek Cyprus, which Turkey refuses to recognize. The Greek Orthodox community relies on their good relations with Turkey’s EU Minister Egemen Bağış, as most of them are his constituency.