My brand-new bracelet from Patriarch Bartholomew
“This is for you,” I heard Patriarch Bartholomew say to me. He handed me a small black waxed “komboskini” prayer rope bracelet and continued his way to enter the central building of Halki Seminary accompanied by a large group of Orthodox priests. He had just said goodbye to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, his wife, his ministers and the rest of the official entourage from Athens. The crowds of Istanbul Rums, Turks from Istanbul, but also a large number of local islanders had started to descend from the hill of Hope, many rushing to catch the regular boat back to the city.
One would have had to trace long back in history to find an occasion when such a big crowd filled the church, the buildings of the seminary and the extensive landscaped gardens on this beautiful natural plateau. I was an unfortunate member of the Greek media team who had just lost the only specially hired boat which had already sailed off the port of Halki — hence my chance of meeting with the Prefect of Phanar at the doorstep and the unexpected gift from him.
By now, dozens of articles have tried to assess the importance of this working two-day visit by the Greek prime minister to Turkey. The visit indeed received the attention not just of the Greek and Turkish media, but also became a subject for several Western commentators, too. They tried to assess whether the visit was the beginning of a new era of de-escalation of tension between the two countries — which got worse during the last two years — or whether both leaders who face crucial elections soon wanted to prop up their image with yet another “serious attempt for peace.” Does Tsipras, after solving the name issue of North Macedonia, want to be seen as a “statesman” embarking on an almost impossible effort to solve the complex Greek-Turkish problems? What about the Aegean, territorial waters, energy rights, Cyprus, Muslims in Western Thrace and the thorn of the “eight FETÖ officers,” a whole pile of problems?
But I am not going to add another comment to this ongoing debate. Sooner or later we will see who was right. But I will tell you what my impressions were from following the meetings of Tsipras in Istanbul.
There is no doubt that he is a familiar face and name among the Turkish public. He is also popular as he gives the impression that he is approachable and a good listener. The only precedent I can think of is George Papandreou, both as foreign minister and prime minister. Part of the Turkish crowd that gathered in Halki last Wednesday wanted to see this “leftist” leader of the neighboring country, and some showed me their selfies with him. The Istanbul Rums and the Phanar clergy, who have traditionally been very suspicious of the policies of Athens towards them, told me how pleasantly surprised they were about Tsipras. While previous leaders from Athens would emphasize the insurmountable obstacles that prevented them from dealing with several problems of the diminished community of Istanbul Rums, Tsipras, they told me, surprised them by telling them that “problems are not all that serious.” A literature teacher told me how “well-informed” Tsipras was on the issue of education for the Greek Orthodox community, a complicated subject for a dwindling population. A businessman from the community told about his suggestion to Tsipras to ask Greek businessmen to invest seriously in Turkey, while a source from the Patriarchate found the presence of Turkish presidential spokesman İbrahim Kalın next to Tsipras all through his visit in Istanbul “a significant sign.”
All of them seemed to agree that the spirit of serenity that was dominant in the visit of Tsipras to Halki and the discussions that are taking place between Turkey and Greece for the reopening of the seminary gave a boost to the self-confidence of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey.
“We are sure that the reopening of the seminary is near. It is a necessity. The visit of Tsipras has contributed to that as it helps the improvement of conditions. The improvement of conditions is necessary for the Greek-Turkish relations, to create and build the necessary political climate to allow its re-opening,” said the head of the seminary, Bishop Elpidoforos.
“I wish the next time I cross the threshold of Halki to be with [President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and for us to declare the reopening of the seminary,” said Tsipras in a speech in Halki in the presence of the Patriarch Bartholomew and Kalın.
And I think it was because of that new spirit I now have a new bracelet on my wrist.