No easy formula for resolving Halki seminary issue

June 30, 2009, Tuesday/ 17:23:00
Recent Turkish media reports suggesting that the Greek Orthodox Heybeliada (Halki) seminary may be reopened shortly stem from a report prepared for newly appointed Education Minister Nimet Çubukçu; however, there is no new sign concerning the reopening of the seminary from either the Foreign Ministry or the government.

The report, drawn up by two Education Ministry bureaucrats, aims solely to brief Çubukçu, and the suggestions within the report are not fresh and had been rejected earlier by the İstanbul-based Fener-Greek Orthodox Patriarchate when they were first raised.

The Education Ministry report focuses on two separate options for reopening the Halki seminary on the island of Heybeliada near İstanbul, which was closed to new students in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control.

According to the first option, the high school section of the seminary would be opened with the status of a private religious high school and would be under the authority of the Education Ministry, while the senior high school, or academy, would function under the authority of the Higher Education Board (YÖK). Both moves under the first option necessitate the enactment of legislation.

The second option in the report envisions opening the seminary within the body of a foundation. Yet, both of the options were rejected in the past by the Fener Greek Patriarchate.

Ankara is under European Union pressure to reopen the Halki seminary. The theological school once trained generations of Greek Orthodox leaders, including the current patriarch. The seminary remained open until 1985, when the last five students graduated. An ethnic Greek but a Turkish citizen, İstanbul-based Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew says the dwindling Orthodox community could soon die out in Turkey if the seminary is not reopened.

The Education Ministry report, meanwhile, also recalls that the seminary at the time functioned under the Directorate General for Private Education Institutions and that the seminary was closed because it was a senior high school. Thus, it is not possible to reopen the entire seminary under the Education Ministry, the report says, noting that only the high school part can function under the Education Ministry provided that necessary amendments on the Law for Private Education are made since private education institutions cannot open religious and military schools under the existing law.

Yet having those amendments may bring the same opportunity of opening private high schools to various other religious communities and orders, which is a source of concern. On the other hand, an amendment which would apply only to the Halki seminary is also problematic because it would be in violation of the principle of equality within the Constitution.

The Education Ministry's plan for the senior high school, or academy, of the Halki seminary to function under the authority of YÖK also requires amendments in the law regulating YÖK. There were debates on such plans in the past; however, parties couldn't agree as the lectures to be provided at the Halki seminary are not in compliance with the goals and principles of universities, which are stipulated in the law regulating YÖK. The Patriarchate, meanwhile, argued that no schools belonging to minorities can be supervised under the Lausanne Treaty and asked for full autonomy within the seminary, rejecting any other plan falling short of such autonomy.

The dress code for universities within the law regulating YÖK is another problematic point, because lecturers at the seminary would be religious clerics wearing traditional clothes.

The government is not against the reopening of the seminary in principle; however, all necessary arrangements for making such a move also necessitate constitutional amendments, which may be used as a tool by opposition parties to fuel nationalist rhetoric. Most recently, in an interview published Sunday in Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini, Egemen Bağış, Turkey's chief negotiator with the EU, acknowledged that Turkey should open the seminary “in order to introduce services to meet the needs of Turkish citizens,” as he stressed that Turkey's Greek Orthodox community is constituted of Turkish citizens, thus making the issue of reopening of the seminary an internal issue for Turkey. 

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