Orthodox renew hope Turkey will re-open historic seminary

July 8, 2009

Empty classroom at the Orthodox Halki seminary, Sept. 2006The 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.

halki-libraryThe 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.

(Photo: Vice-abbot Dorotheos in the seminary library, 18 Sept 2006/Tom Heneghan)

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.

halki-tesevRe-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.

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My GOD, has Turkey finally joined the 21st Century? I’ll believe it when I see it.
What compulsive fabricated paranoia, mired in some dark age mentality, ever allowed some Turkish OLD GRAY MILITARY GUARD to close an institutition of higher learning whose connections predated its own existence by centuries?
I gave the Turkish Peoples more credit than that! But again, I’ll believe it when I see it!

Posted by G. Arthur George | Report as abusive

will a perusing turk kindly assist me with the following questions: a) how does a “secular” country fund and regulate madrassas and muslim seminaries; b) doesn’t the lausanne treaty protect halki; c) if the orthodox in turkey are turkish citizens, how does what happens in greece matter; d) as far as bartholomew’s status as ecumenical patriarch, when did turkey decide that it had authority to write his job description?

Posted by jd | Report as abusive

Encouraging news for Greek Orthodox Christians. Turkey’s secular society is an important factor in the Islamic world because Turkey’s political policies avoid Islamic extremism, which so negatively impact places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran today. It is understandable that to continue an objective, free religious atmosphere in secular Turkey, the government has to reopen the Orthodox seminary carefully. Regardless, this is good news and should be encourage.

Posted by Rand MacDonald | Report as abusive

Yet gain Turkey shows its tolerance despite never ending hatret of Turks by majority of the Greeks and especially Greek Cypriots. Greece and Greek Cyprus should really use a mirror now and then so that they look at themeselves to realise that they are the least tolerant party in this relationship, if you can call it that. Even though the Greek people are exteremely similar to Turks in my view, their fixed views of Turks and the history of 100 years ago will never fade away unless they grow up and forgive..

Posted by Al Uzel | Report as abusive

Rather than following the advice of the Orthodox religous leaders, Greeks should focus on being more secular and try to be more tolerant towards their neighbours Turks. I have been to both Turkey and Greece manay times. It is clear that the Greeks simply cannot stop hating the Turks. If I was a Turk, I would not trust the Greeks either. Greek hearts are full of hatred towards Turks. And that stems from their religous leaders. So, the opening of the Greek seminary is a negative development in my view. They will continue teaching the Greeks to hate Turks

Posted by Tony Sivills | Report as abusive

Turkey and Europe.
Entrenched Positions

1.A striking case is the decade’s long whish of the Orthodox Patriarchate (Phener) to restart its Halki Theological department, a whish that despite strong international back up hasn’t been granted yet.

A tricky issue for those who want to comment as all parties involved share a common aspect: looking to the past: tight up to past “idealized” positions with a chronic fear to leave entrenched positions.
Turkey, a country much beloved personally, with a craving for modernisation and European membership; simultaneously wrestling with his own created myths and glorious but difficult past, hoping to explore its economical and social opportunities in a modern context but handicapped by its still imperfect democratisation and its historical difficult balance between civil and military powers.
Religious minorities and Muslim sects, having faced century-long discrimination and suppression, having used every bit of opportunity to strive for more freedom and equal rights as applied and guaranteed in Western Countries. Minorities with also very strong traditional concepts and eagerly claiming rapid progress but still looked at with mistrust.

2.A serious challenge, if not impossible.

A secular state but with an overwhelming Muslim influence. A religion which hasn’t yet gone through the critical analyses and investigations of the up to date sciences and consequently is considered overwhelmingly fundamentalist and a serious handicap to cast Turkey in a western democratic concept and society.

The European community, still wrestling with the newly and very hastily, admitted ex Comecon members and its own internal unsettled concept and overly complicated and costly organisation, is looking desperately for excuses not to accept Turkey too soon as a full member.
Turkey is or cannot comply with the requirements of a full membership and has it difficult what it considers to drop its proper identity and political approach. Rightfully so it should be given the opportunity to keep the good treasures and aspects of its own glorious past and local Muslim traditions. Be it that Turkey always was part of the European history and continent its Muslim religion aspect gave it its specific character that nowadays should be cast into a system and concept that fits the basic principles and values of the European Community.

3.So a long and difficult work is ahead of us.

So let me face the wrath of all parties involved and tackle an issue which I’m a bit more familiar with as an Orthodox Christian, living abroad but with about 40 years of personal experience of Turkey.

In fact to illustrate the complexity and pitfalls I’m taking the issue of religious freedom for religious minorities , particularly the difficult situation of the Seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate; in plain Turkish referred to as the” Phener”.
Referring to the Treaty of Lausanne the Orthodox Church should have an easy life. Like in the Western world they would be able to run their own business and organize their own affairs, in fact they should also be financed or at least not financially be harassed, with their religion lessons in public schools and the possibility to have their own educational system be it with a minimum standard C.V., this including their own academic training facilities.

In daily practice life their situation being much better than f.e. the Surian Orthodox Christians or the protestant sects, it is very far from the Western situation. The European Union is for decades making a serious point about that and the progress made is very, very slow and with apparent reluctance and large internal opposition.
The Dynia, Department of religious affairs having a very impressive budget has a strict control on the Muslim community and organisations; they keep the purse, distribute it generously provided one follow the strict rules by the Dynai. A strange situation for outsiders but a very practical solution for the Turkish situation: at least still in the opinion of many politicians and military leaders. Minorities live the Alevis and Christians are not very hot to be controlled by the same people, particularly as they claim that the growing influence of the AK Party is threatening the secularisation and supporting actively the Muslim Umna.

The Patriarch, in fact the sole leader of the Orthodox community, has a terrible problem; about 91 churches in Istanbul, empty Schools, lot’s of unused property despite the heavy confiscating of property in the past century, a dwindling number of Rums ( original Greek speaking Turkish people; about 2.200 estimated ) ; a growing ( non Turkish) Christian population, Orthodox, no legal status or protection and steady harassment from mainly local authorities or legal persecution on different matters.
With an “old time” organisation, far too large for the local flock but somehow needed for the worldwide care which is attributed to him by the Orthodox Churches, he is handicapped by the old age of the majority of his local clergy and, accordingly the Patriarch, because of the continued closure of the theological Halki school not in a position to train new clergy.

That the Phener is largely financed by the Greek government and private U.S. funds, next to the contributions of the world wide flock is looked at with mistrust. The Dynia however is steadily setting up organisations and financing mosques all over the world, very rightfully so I would say, but at least gives the impression that to return the courtesy and let this freely happen in Turkey doesn’t seem to them to be a good idea. Their imams are accepted and receive permits to serve as such; the Christians in Turkey aren’t allowed to have foreign priests serve their churches (only with three months visa in practice)

4.Islam faculties or seats are largely accepted in all Western Democratic countries, f.e. only in Germany 12 chairs Islam Departments have been established both by local authorities and or in large private academic institutes and also partly staffed with foreign( Muslim) specialists. In Turkey, like in dominant Muslim countries, this isn’t the case for Christian theological faculties. Inter religious Departments without any ideological background or purposes, widely spread in the Western world still have to be basically realized in those dominantly Muslim areas.
Time for Turkey to start such academic policy and allow financed chairs to be set up too by private institutes. There are abundant exemplas in the Western world to receive inspiration and collaboration. Nothing new has to be invented.
Of course the Phener does dispose of many high level theological institutes both in Europe, the States and other continents. Theoretically the Phener doesn’t have a need to reopen the Halki theological school and in fact in my opinion the completely outdated concept and building and since decades frozen situation isn’t suited at all to day for realizing an up to date academic department.
Hélas, as I already claimed, it’s a trench battle aiming at reviving a past idealized situation.
Like its organisation, language used and the local pastoral approach it is all reflecting, since long, past situation. Daring or new solutions except use of PC, Cep telephone isn’t considered seriously, one usually call this extreme conservatism.

5.The absence of the official recognition of the religious leaderships organs( despite Lausanne); the GDF ( General Directorate for Foundations) and its manifold stumble blocks for all religious organisations are still today subject to serious comment of the EU and most probably the reason why Turkey came recently on the international list of countries to be watched closely on the topic of religious freedom.

The international community and the E.U. is still very intensively pre occupied with the prevailing legal and non legal harassments, the extra limitations, burdens and unfriendly attitude vis à vis those Non Muslim minorities ( including Alevis) . The Turkish government however, we must acknowledge, has to take into account a general reluctance in the population to change this situation and on top the Guardians of the Republic aren’t very hot on it either.
How earnestly and with what perseverance the government and local parties and local authorities are effectively striving to change and the mentality of the population and solve practically all legal discussions/problems, limitations, discriminations and the legislation and their application norms can be the only practical yardstick to judge this situation.

6.As such it seems to me that following issues should be dealt with first of all:

1. Either strict separation of religious organisations / the state with a financing accordingly European standards or without any subsidising (exception made for the historical building maintenance) like it is in France. In concrete terms for Turkey, based on a strict concept and criteria subsidising of all registered movements, with a proper juridical set up for all accepted religions. A system like Germany can be followed with different sub departments within the Dynia. The religious organisations should however all be subject to financial control of the government and should comply with the basic tenants of the Law and refrain from political action.( all members free in their political rights however)
2. Provided the common Curriculum is followed all should be possible to open their own private schools, provided under steady control of the Department of education. Theological (in his widest sense) Chairs should be possible to open as well .
3. The government must deal with all open problems and make a definite settlement within a fixed period, in case this isn’t with common consent of the parties involved an international arbitrage will settle the matter definitely.
4. The government will no longer block officially the use of Ecumenical title of the Patriarch, a title bestowed on him since centuries already by the international Orthodox community; it should also give a legal entity to the church organisation.
5. Foreign priests, monks, professors, teachers or other communal religious professions will receive permanent visa whenever they serve under the umbrella and responsibility of the religious authorized organisations.

6.An interreligious academic department with on top individual chairs financed by the religious communities. The interreligious basic department financed by the government should be realized on the basis of academic freedom like it is customary in Western Europe.
The basic aim should be to bring an interreligious dialogue and a confrontation with the present to day scientifically knowledge and insights in order to promote dialogue and common sense and understanding. This should also be possible in private universities but then with private funds, under supervision and with financial control by the central authorities. The aim being to attract international renowned guest professors and create an internationally renowned institute for the Muslim/other religion/atheism dialogue and confrontation. This should be realized in basically International Languages to allow an international status and working area.

7.Turkey with his unique position as a Muslim country with a strict modern concept of separation of state and religion could play a unique role, also as a serious partner for similar initiatives in the “Christian” countries. It would enhance considerably the international status as well.

8.Is this all leading to a conclusion that little was achieved or that the efforts were too small and limited?
Not at all, the last couple of years have seen enormous progress within sometimes difficult circumstances. The present government isn’t of course blameless but has realized wonders and dared facing extreme difficult issues and contradicting influences and pressure.
A general nostalgia to older times is still prevailing however; too many too long are looking at the glorious past. Too long a critical approach open to this past, the present challenges and changes required was and is still lacking.
A serious insight in one’s own history is lacking on all sides and little effort is done to counter this serious lack of knowledge.
Remaining in the old trenches is carelessly waiting for his own burial by crumbling institutions and the progress of modern times and knowledge.

Turkey has of course a very specific and unique situation within the Muslim world and consequently cannot be forced to copy blindly and uncritically Western solutions and practices. Even with an open mind for the opportunities and challenges of to day all involved actors should be given time and credit but also should be under critical follow up and remain responsible and liable vis à vis their “subjects” ; the times when absolute monarchical systems prevailed and a vertical hierarchic with only top down situation and communication and with a flock that lacked information, education and political power are gone since quite many decades.
Governing an institute or a country is though based on traditional, culturally coloured values, but requires a new and up, to date approach.
(Recommended reading : “Osman’s Dream” by Caroline Finkel; “Des Racines pour l’Avenir “par Thierry Verhelst)

Posted by Alex Kinnet | Report as abusive