Last week, Religious Affairs Directorate President Mehmet Görmez visited Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I. The existence of the Religious Affairs Directorate is often criticized, as it is a large administration with a considerable budget financed by the state -- in other words, by all Turkish citizens -- yet it only serves Sunni Muslims. Some people say this is not compatible with the secular character of the state, but others believe it is an indispensable rampart to protect pious people from radical Islamist currents.
The place of this directorate has grown stronger in the state protocol over the last couple of years; its president has even changed his uniform, and now he wears a more garish gown. He also expresses his views on social matters more freely, such as during the recent debate about abortion. Nevertheless, his visit to the patriarchate deserves to be applauded.
The meeting between the two clerics was very friendly; they even exchanged their personal prayer beads. It’s odd that no former president of the Religious Affairs Directorate had the idea to visit the patriarchate. Religious minorities in Turkey have had to endure many problems in the past, and the Greek Orthodox community is no exception. Today when we talk about Turkey’s Christians, we first think of the Armenians, as they constitute the largest group; but the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate has always had a special importance in Turkey for historical reasons. Discrimination against non-Muslims is still a serious problem in the country: To launch a political lynching campaign against the columnist Ali Bayramoğlu, some people have tried to “prove” his Armenian origins, for example.
Professor Görmez’s visit is a positive sign; however, to really correct the injustices of the past, concrete improvements are necessary too and not only symbolic steps. One of these concrete initiatives may be the reopening of the Heybeliada Greek Orthodox Seminary.
No one is able to explain why this school remains closed, or what harm it will bring to Turkey if it resumes its activity. We know that it was closed down in 1971 in the context of political crises with Greece. So, because of a diplomatic crisis with a foreign country, the Turkish state has punished its own citizens and violated their freedom of faith.
The patriarchate has been seeking the reopening of the seminary since then, and for the first time a president of the Religious Affairs Directorate has expressed his wish to see this seminary renew its educational mission. He also said that the patriarchate’s request is totally justified as it is about fundamental human rights.
The government is not opposed to the seminary reopening, but there is an ongoing debate about the administration. There are those who say that it should remain under the patriarchate’s exclusive control, and those who say that it should be attached to a university. For my part, I know a university much interested by this option.
The reopening of the seminary has become a difficult issue mostly because of psychological barriers rather than legal problems. Besides, even if there are legal obstacles, when there is political will, laws can be modified easily.
Keeping channels for dialogue open is the best way to resolve old problems. Let’s hope that the seminary issue is resolved as quickly as possible and that the Religious Affairs Directorate keeps supporting freedom of religion for everyone in the county.