The other night, I hosted Emre Öktem, an associate professor of international law, on my weekly TV program called “Political Reason.” Our main focus was the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its still-closed Halki Seminary, which has once again become a matter of public debate after a visit to the patriarchate by Turkey’s top Islamic authority.
Dr. Öktem, an expert on non-Muslim minorities in Turkey, not only explained how the Ecumenical Patriarchate suffered official oppression in modern-day Turkey, but he also argued how things should change. We both agreed that the Halki Seminary, which has been closed since 1971, should be reopened, and that no Turkish authority should ever make an issue out of the name of the patriarchate. (The word “Ecumenical” has been rejected vehemently by Turkish officials.)
We also agreed that this is simply a matter of religious freedom, a principle which should be advanced on both side of the Aegean. (Greece, for example, should change its shameful policy of not allowing even a single mosque in Athens and insisting that its Turkish citizens are not really Turks.)
It all sounded very logical, and I actually wondered why anyone would disagree with all this. Very soon, though, I found out. On the way back home from the studio, I turned on the radio and came across another political discussion show focusing on the same issue.
One of the participants was an academic from Marmara University: Nurşen Mazıcı, a female professor of history and a committed Kemalist. Dr. Mazıcı had all the looks that a Western observer could take as evidence of “liberalism.” (When they come to this part of this world, some Westerners readily assume that a woman who wears a modern outfit with chic makeup rather than a headscarf is, by definition, a “liberal.”) But she was in fact defending the most illiberal stance on the patriarchate: Yes, Greeks in Turkey should have the “right to worship,” she said, but the Halki Seminary should be kept closed and the word “Ecumenical” should never be allowed.
But why? According to Ms. Mazıcı, all answers were rooted in history. She argued that, during the fall of the Ottoman Empire, some of the Armenian or Greek
institutions were used as secret weapons and ammunition caches that were later used against Turkish forces. This, she, said, was enough of a reason for modern-day Turks to look at these Christian institutions “with suspicion.”
At that moment, I desperately wanted to be in the same studio to ask her:
“So, do you really think that if the Halki Seminary was reopened, bombs and rifles would soon be stockpiled there to be used by the 3,000 Greeks that have remained in Istanbul against 70 million Turks?”
A minute later, Dr. Mazıcı insisted that the patriarchate should never be allowed to use the word “Ecumenical.” Her reasoning was mind-boggling: The world, particularly the United States, was pressuring Turkey to set the patriarchate fully free, and heeding that advice would be “subservience to America.”
With the same line of reasoning, one could have argued that Turkey had to torture its citizens systematically as it did until a decade ago, because otherwise it would be “subservient” to the European Union, which has pressured Ankara
to respect human rights.
This is the intellectual level and the moral quality of the enemies of religious freedom in Turkey. It is a sad fact that they cannot be convinced for the better. But it is a refreshing fact that they are more marginal than they used to be.