In a historic visit, the Turkish state’s most powerful religious figure met the most powerful figure in the Orthodox world. It was not only that Professor Mehmet Görmez, head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, chatted with, publicly kissed and hugged Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for the first time. It looked like a well-calculated visit by a Sunni clerk controlling $6 billion and 75,000 mosques to a patriarchate that is troubled by a closed Halki seminary on Heybeliada, an issue that has been a matter of contention for some time.
Görmez made, among other bold words, this strong point: “I believe the principle of reciprocity is not moral, with respect to the rights and freedoms, although the modern world is attaching importance to it. If a country says, ‘If you grant rights to Muslims or the religious people in your country, I will do the same with those in my country, or if you do any injustice to them in your country, I will do the same with those in my country,’ this is something I cannot see as befitting a major country or a major civilization.”
Regarding reciprocity and delaying solutions to problems of religious minorities in their own territories, of course both Turkey and Greece play in a league of their own. Turkey managed to turn the Halki Seminary opening into a true tangle, while Greece insists on appointing muftis for the Turkish minority in Western Thrace. Both have for decades confiscated vast amounts of property belonging to religious foundations (vakıfs). Greek Orthodox churches in Turkey suffered devastation.
In Turkey, resistance to opening churches causes big problems from time to time and in Greece, to open a mosque in Athens is a similar tangle to that of Halki. Maybe more importantly, there are no cemeteries for Muslims in Greece in the west and south of Salonika. If a Muslim dies, say, in Pireus, he or she must be sent to West Thrace for burial, and so on and so forth.
Halki is a shameful episode on Turkey’s part. Görmez’s visit and words show now more clearly an awareness of the need for a solution, without taking refuge to reciprocity. That his statement followed words by Hüseyin Çelik, the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) spokesperson, that the (Halki) issue can be solved without any decision by Parliament in “24 hours” is also politically significant.
“Well, if so, then solve it” was the most immediate reaction by many, though Çelik is right: The ecumenical patriarchate can be given the right by the government to establish a “foundation university” (for example by the Agia Triada Foundation) and the problem would be over.
Görmez and Çelik’s statements were also seen as a manner of testing the ground. And, the fact of the matter is, the Halki issue is no longer a hot potato for Erdoğan’s strongly backed government. Large swaths of AKP voters would simply applaud it, seeing it as just another crucial step for freedom of faith. On Halki, Erdoğan should indeed not hesitate another second.
Görmez’s contact is therefore important in this sense: If both religious leaders cooperate more for enhancing freedom, both in Turkey and Greece, they will no doubt loosen the tight grip of political reciprocity, enslaving both capitals.
Acknowledging troubles in two countries has in this sense nothing at all with implying reciprocity; it points to a need for cooperation and mutual commitment. Reciprocity is one (unacceptable) thing, but at the same time, the history of both countries powerfully converges; they eye each other, expecting steps. Religious figures are therefore very important.
If this makes sense, let me add, also in this sensitive context, that not only the Religious Affairs Directorate, but all large religious communities (“cemaats”) of Turkey must offer Ankara help to manage the public, while we also expect Bartholomew to talk more comprehensively on what is probably the toughest obstacle in overcoming the Sunni-Orthodox divide: the Church of Greece -- which must be helped to understand that the AKP as a political movement is a chance for solutions, not for stiffening further.
If Halki is a ridiculous problem that should belong to the past, so is the open or hidden resistance to a mosque in Athens and cemeteries for Muslims in Greece. Reciprocity as a primitive means left fully to one side, it is unbecoming for both countries to pose as intolerant of other faiths in the eyes of the civilized world. With mutual trust, they will surprise many.