Now is the time to open the Halki Seminary
Turkey’s top Islamic authority, Mehmet Görmez, the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, did a very good job the other day in paying an official visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the top authority within Eastern Christianity. He also made this even more meaningful by giving his full support to the reopening of the Halki Seminary, the patriarchate’s educational institution for the training of new clergymen.
Amazingly enough, this was “the first official visit” to the Ecumenical Patriarchate by a head of the Religious Affairs Directorate. The latter institution, created in 1924 by the republican regime, has been inevitably influenced official policies, which have hardly been friendly to the patriarchate.
The story can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire, during which the Ecumenical Patriarchate, along with other Christian institutions, found more freedom and security than they would ever find under the Turkish Republic. No wonder that the Halki Seminary was opened in 1847 under the auspices of the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid I.
Things got worse in the 20th century. Yet what poisoned the Turkish attitudes to the patriarchate was not Islam, but a new force that became the basis of the Turkish Republic: Turkish nationalism. While the Ottomans saw the patriarchate and its believers as their own people, the new Turkish Republic saw them as the fifth column of the neighboring but unfriendly Greece. (It should be noted that the fact that the patriarchate sided with the Greek invaders of Anatolia in the early 1920’s did not help.)
All this should serve to explain why Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, was also the founder-behind-the-scenes of a bogus and rival church, the so-called Autocephalous Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate. This bizarre institution, which hardly has anything to do with Christianity, has been an arm of the Turkish “deep state,” and a hotbed of hardcore Turkish ultra-nationalism. One of the group’s officials is now a suspect in the Ergenekon case, accused of planning attacks on Turkish Christians.
The Turkish grip on the Ecumenical Patriarchate became tighter in 1971, when a military-manipulated government passed a law that “nationalized” all education. The Halki Seminary, which had been active for almost 130 years, was given the choice of either being under state supervision or closing. It understandably chose the latter.
New hopes were raised only in the 2000’s, when the European Union accession process began and the AKP (Justice and Development Party) began to break both the Kemalist establishment and its nationalist taboos. Hence some significant steps were taken to improve the status of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
However, the reopening of the Halki Seminary has been constantly delayed, and I have been told by government circles that this has been based on two problems: The silly principle of “reciprocity” between Turkey and Greece — that we will not improve the Greek situation here unless they do the same for Turks there — and that the AKP would lose some nationalist votes.
That is why Görmez’s messages sounded right to the point: He both dismissed the idea of reciprocity, and, as an Islamic authority, gave his full support to the reopening of the Halki Seminary. I sense that this was moral leverage the AKP government needed before opening the seminary. And I very much hope that I am not wrong.