Heybeliada seminary: the latest object of the Turko-Greek policy seesaw

Heybeliada seminary: the latest object of the Turko-Greek policy seesaw

One of the characteristics of Greek-Turkish relations is the element of periodicity: bilateral issues that stayed unsolved for years and were entangled in the complex policy balances between these two neighboring countries will come to the foreground of the political agenda and stay there for a while, creating “mobility” around them, to eventually bow out of the political stage and be stored until their time comes again.

That was my feeling, rather than a rational thought, when I rushed for a journalism trip to the Hill of Hope on the top of which lies the Theological School of Halki, closed by Turkish authorities in 1971. My hastened trip was due to the recently raised diplomatic temperature around the issue of the reopening of the school, which came up after the unscheduled meeting between the prime ministers of Greece and Turkey, Antonis Samaras and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in the capital of Qatar at the end of January. The issue of Halki apparently was discussed during that meeting but it was tied to the issue of the religious needs of the Muslim Turks who live in the Greek Western Thrace. Also, apparently, it was tied to the construction of a mosque in Athens, which the Turkish Prime Minister, according to media reports, proposed that his government could finance.

But the temperature had started getting hot just days before: when the official Turkish side suddenly started sending messages of conditional hope to the Greek (Rum) Orthodox community in Turkey through the Education Ministry and Turkish Higher Education Board (YÖK). They announced that work relating to the reopening of the Seminary had been accelerated upon instructions from the Turkish Prime Minister. But at the same time, following the customary “hot and cold” diplomatic style of Ankara, while accepting that there may be a possibility of the reopening of the School, Turkey’s deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, in a terse press conference, criticized the decision of the Samaras government to provide for the training of imams for the Western Thrace Muslims. And to complete the story, the Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Constantinos Tsiaras stated late last week that the construction of a mosque in Athens “was not a specific topic on the agenda of Turkish-Greek diplomacy” and that, at any rate, “it would be built entirely with the country’s own financial resources.”

Say out of professional precaution or vice, I found myself on the Hill of Hope last week trying to test the temperature in situ. There is no “hot and cold” diplomacy; there is wide anticipation that the school will be reopened “at any moment.” Of course, since its closure, the school continued it normal daily routine of cleanliness and tidiness albeit with empty classrooms. But this time we were told that “when the school opens, these old black wooden desks will be stored in a specially made museum and the classrooms will be fitted with the contemporary means of education.” When I asked the Orthodox leaders of the school why there is such an air of anticipation now, I was assured that there is “political will,” which can be safely interpreted as the “prime minister’s will.”

“Let us hope that God’s gift for the reopening of the School will be given to our own generation,” said the Ecumenical Patriarch in his speech last week at a special ceremony in the Monastery of Aghia Triada in memory of memory of its founder Patriarch Fotios, in the vicinity of the Halki Seminary.

So, the signs are suddenly there, there has been preparation work for some time and there is a potentially important date ahead, March 5, when the Greek Prime Minister visits Ankara for the first intergovernmental meeting.

But I am still cautious. First, because of the periodical nature of Greek-Turkish issues and secondly because of what a Turkish professor told me when I asked him if there is political will over the reopening of the Seminary. “There is mobility, but I am not sure that there is will,” he said.