Patriarch Asks Turkey to End Stalemate Over Shuttered Seminary
By: Yasemin Çongar for Al-Monitor Turkey Pulse Posted on August 19.
Clad in ceremonial attire complete with a jeweled crown and the
patriarchal crozier in one hand, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew stood,
Aug. 15, on the terrace of the Sumela Monastery and prayed. His face was
damp with sweat and his silk white robe with powder-blue patterns of the
cross shimmered under the noon sun.
I was not there, but as I watched Greece’s TV 4E livestreaming the
Divine Liturgy from Turkey’s northern province of Trabzon, I could feel
the heat of the moment. While the Biblical verses the patriarch recited
in classical Greek sounded ethereal, the symbolism of the service, which
was also attended by grim-faced government representatives in grey
suits, could not have been more mundane.
Keen on verbally demoting Bartholomew’s mandate to that of a
neighborhood priest’s, Turkish officials still refer to him as “the
Fener Greek Patriarch,” but the ecumenical leader of the 300
million-member Orthodox Christian Church has indeed come a long way in
his very mundane struggle for recognition in Turkey.
This was the fourth time in a row, after a government-imposed ban for 86
years, that a religious service was held at the Sumela Monastery to mark
the Dormition of Theotokos, one of the great feasts of the Orthodox
Church. A strong advocate of religious freedom, Bartholomew had a key
role in persuading the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to
lift the ban in 2009.
He was installed as patriarch in 1991 and has been speaking out ever
since for the rights of not only the very-much diminished community of
less than 3,000 ethnic Greeks but all religious minorities in Turkey.
Today, a 73-year old man with a cotton-white beard covering his chest
and a voice that has mellowed with age, he still makes the same demands
Speaking at an iftar dinner recently, Bartholomew looked his host —
Istanbul’s top Muslim clergyman Mufti Rahmi Yaran — in the eye and said,
“Religious officials should be properly educated and set examples based
on their trainings. Now that we are entering a dangerous stage of
lacking qualified religious officials, we would like to emphasize the
gravity of the situation at the Halki Seminary.”
The patriarch was referring to his alma mater, the Theological School of
Halki, which was founded in 1844 on Heybeliada, the second largest of
the nine Princes’ Islands off the coast of Istanbul. The ferry ride to
Heybeliada is merely an hour, but once you set foot on the island it
feels like you traveled back in time to an Edenic land where life flows
much slower than the city. With no cars allowed, the main noise is the
click-clacks of horse buggies, and you can actually hear singing
contests between nightingales.
There, ensconced in the bosom of piney hills is the 11th century
Byzantine Monastery of the Holy Trinity, home of the Halki Seminary —
the main theological school of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Once a “beehive” — to use Bartholomew’s description — with Greek boys of
all ages training to become priests, the school closed its gates in 1971
when the Turkish government banned all private higher education
institutions. Since then, Turkey went through a war in Cyprus and a
series of Aegean disputes, military coups and financial crises. More
recently, the country also had periods of robust growth and
democratization. However, the Halki Seminary, somehow unaffected by the
improved conjuncture, remained closed.
Over the years, Turkish civil society and the international community
called repeatedly for the school to be opened. Every US president from
Carter to Obama raised the issue with Turkey’s leaders. The AKP
government declared, as early as 2003, that they were looking for a
solution. To no avail.
So, hearing that the four-decade stalemate might finally end is welcome
news. The government plans to submit a reform package to parliament next
month, and it is said to include a new “formula” for Halki.
Although no details were publicly given, Turkish bureaucrats told
Al-Monitor that the seminary would be allowed to teach at the university
level only, and “a major sticking point that had to do with autonomy”
seemed to have been cleared. “It is on the table now,” said Justice
Minister Sadullah Ergin. “If a political decision is taken, then of
course the Halki Seminary could be opened.”
But hasn’t that political decision been made already? After all, Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan nodded approvingly before the cameras when
President Barack Obama remarked at their joint press conference in March
2012, in Seoul, that he was pleased to have heard of Erdogan’s decision
to reopen the seminary.
And, why does Turkey need a new “formula” for a school that served the
community for over a century? According to the legal counsel of the
Ecumenical Patriarchate Kezban Hatemi, delicate maneuvering is uncalled
for here. In an interview with Taraf, Hatemi pointed out that the
Theological School was shut down with a letter from the Education
Ministry. “So it could reopen with a simple order from Erdogan,” she said.
To Ankara, it is not that straightforward. For decades, the Turkish
state viewed the Patriarchate as a threat. Although the hostile language
used in the national security documents was removed a few years ago, AKP
leaders have not been able to rid themselves of the nationalist paranoia
that the Patriarchate is a new Vatican in the making. Hence their
refusal to recognize Bartholomew’s ecumenical title.
Ankara’s procrastination also results from the idiosyncracies of Turkish
secularism. By letting the Greek Orthodox train their own clergy, the
government might run the risk of coming under pressure to ease the state
monopoly over Islamic education. “Turkey, may want to become more
liberal toward its religious minorities,” Andrew Finkel wrote in The New
York Times, “but not at the risk of tolerating more diversity within the
Bartholomew knows a thing or two about government control over religion
in Turkey. But he also knows what the separation of church and state
means elsewhere in the world. After Halki, he studied in Rome, Munich
and the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey in Switzerland, experiencing
firsthand the autonomy that is essential to religious education. And as
patriarch, he told respective Turkish heads of government that he would
not agree to anything less for Halki.
The formula that is now on the the table will reportedly allow that. In
order to stay outside the supervision of the Higher Education Council
(YOK) — a product of the military regime — the seminary might attach
itself to a university abroad and perhaps be permitted to accept foreign
Opening Halki to the world, as it were, would be a tremendous step for
Ankara in overcoming its paranoia. It might even pave the way to the
amendment of the law that states only Turkish nationals can be installed
as patriarch — a sanction that makes reopening the seminary ever more
urgent now. Greek Orthodox clergymen that are Turkish citizens are
almost all graduates of Halki, and they are not getting any younger.
For Bartholomew, the fight for Halki is a fight for survival. He is
encouraged by what he hears from the government, but has been dealing
with Turkish politicians long enough to celebrate just yet.
Faith in Divine Providence makes him a patient man. As he told CNN, he
ultimately trusts “the guarantee given by the Lord himself that the
church can survive.” And if one expects more from human intervention,
the slopes on which the Halki Seminary stands are named, appropriately,
the Hill of Hope.
Yasemin Çongar is the author of four books in Turkish, among them Artık
Sır Değil (No More A Secret), a detailed analysis of the US diplomatic
cables on Turkey first made public by WikiLeaks. A former Washington
bureau chief for Milliyet (1995–2007) and a founding deputy
editor-in-chief of Taraf (2007–2012), Çongar is currently based in
Istanbul and is a columnist for the Internet newspaper T24.