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Patriarch Asks Turkey to End Stalemate Over Shuttered Seminary

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/08/halki-island-orthodox-church-turkey.html Patriarch Asks Turkey to End Stalemate Over Shuttered Seminary By:
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 24, 2013

      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
      with eloquence.

      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
      Muslim mainstream.”

      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.
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