Orthodox renew hope Turkey will re-open historic seminary
The silent halls and empty classrooms tended by elderly priests at a former Greek Orthodox seminary on an island off the Istanbul coast belie the crucible the school has become in Muslim Turkey’s quest to join the European Union.
The EU has said re-opening Halki seminary, a centre of Orthodox scholarship for more than a century until Turkey closed it down in 1971, is crucial if Ankara is to prove a commitment to human rights and pluralism and advance its membership bid.
(Photo: Halki seminary classroom, 18 Sept 2006/Tom Heneghan)
The pro-Islamist government, despite introducing other sweeping reforms to bring Turkey closer to EU membership, has thus far refused to re-open the 165-year-old school located on a pretty wooded isle called Heybeliada in the Sea of Marmara.
Now, senior Turkish officials have signalled a change in the government’s stance. Last week, Culture Minister Ertugrul Günay said he believed the seminary would re-open. Deputy Prime Minister Egemen Bagis, the chief EU negotiator, told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini in late June that the seminary should be opened to meet the needs of the country’s non-Muslim citizens.
Then on Monday, after holding talks with Turkey’s top Muslim cleric, Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill said he had received information the seminary would open. The renewed debate follows U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Turkey in April, when he called on the government to re-open Halki to “send a important signal” that it upholds freedom of religion and expression.
The reports have cheered Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians. He told reporters on Saturday he believed the government was close to resolving the issue. For Bartholomew and the Greek Orthodox faithful, the school is key to the survival of their church in its historical seat of Constantinople, now Istanbul, a city of some 15 million mostly Muslim residents.
The patriarchate is a vestige of the Greek Byzantine Empire’s 1,000-year reign from the banks of the Bosphorus Strait. Today, it has no means to train clergy, making it difficult to find a successor for Bartholomew, 69, himself a graduate of the school. Turkish law requires the patriarch to be a citizen of Turkey, but only about 2,500 ethnic Greeks remain in Istanbul, compared with some 125,000 a half-century ago.
Opponents of the seminary say it violates the secular constitution and reopening it would prompt radical Islamists to demand their own schools. All of Turkey’s Islamic theology faculties are located at strictly regulated state universities. Some Turks also fear it would legitimise Bartholomew’s ecumenical, or universal, title. Unlike most countries, Turkey doesn’t recognise that designation, arguing Bartholomew is only the head of the country’s tiny flock of Greek Orthodox.
Re-establishing a seminary would create an Orthodox “Vatican City” in Istanbul that could serve as a Fifth Column of Greece, the country’s historical foe, they argue. After all, Turkey closed Halki during a period of tension with Greece over Cyprus.
Constitutional scholars argue there’s little legal basis to keep the college closed, just a lack of political will, according to a May report from the Turkish think tank Tesev (see image at right)
The last serious attempt to re-open Halki was in 2006, when the secularist opposition blocked a government motion in parliament that would have allowed the seminary to operate.
“We have not lost hope, despite the broken promises, because a person only lives as long as he has hope. Even on his deathbed, he resists the end,” Metropolitan Apostolos Daniilidis, Halki’s abbot, said at the time from his office atop the Hill of Hope on Heybeliada.
And so each autumn, the priests of Halki sweep the halls and ready the classrooms for what they pray will be the imminent return of their first class of students in 38 years.