Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who paid a New Year's visit to the İstanbul-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, has said the government is trying to overcome legal obstacles that stand in the way of reopening the Halki (Heybeliada) Seminary, closed since 1971.
“There are some legal obstacles in front of us. We will overcome them. This is not something we can grant. We need to do what the law requires us to do,” he said during his visit to Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world. Arınç, however, did not specify what these obstacles are, though he did say some of them stem from international agreements and some are related to domestic matters.
Indicating that this is his first visit to the patriarchate, Arınç said he came to wish the patriarch a happy new year. He added that in their meeting on Büyükada in August of last year he had told Patriarch Bartholomew that he was going to visit him at the patriarchate. Patriarch Bartholomew said his hope for the reopening of the school was solidified by Arınç's visit yesterday.
“We expect our school to reopen. This is going to be the 40th anniversary of our school’s closure. We hope the government will put its good will into practice,” he said. The patriarch added that clergymen who live in other countries but who serve the patriarchate have been given Turkish citizenship under the initiative of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“This is a very important step for the functioning of our patriarchate. We expect Turkey to continue to be successful in the new year and to become a member of the EU soon,” he said.
Patriarchate officials gave Arınç the 1952 photographs of former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes taken at the patriarchate during his visit. Arınç is the highest-ranking government official to visit the patriarchate since Menderes. Patriarch Athenagoras, an American citizen, held the position at the time.
Last summer, Prime Minister Erdoğan told the patriarch that it was possible to find a solution to the problem soon, though he did not specify the problem.
Erdoğan’s statement came following a presentation by the patriarchate of various problems, from seized buildings and churches to the Halki Seminary. Erdoğan, accompanied by Arınç, Education Minister Nimet Çubukçu and Turkey’s chief European Union negotiator Egemen Bağış, paid a visit to the patriarchate’s monastery on Aug. 15.
The Halki Seminary, the only school where the Greek minority in Turkey used to educate its clergymen, was closed in 1971 during a period of tension with Greece over Cyprus and a crackdown on religious education that also included Muslim religious schools.
The total number of graduates from the school is 990, and some of them have become clergymen in various places in Turkey and even in Athens. The school has been well kept since there is a functioning monastery on its premises.
Asked one year ago by Today’s Zaman whether the patriarchate plans to take the issue to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), patriarchate officials said they do not wish to use that course of action but that Patriarch Bartholomew had said they will have to do that “if deadlock persists.”
The demand to reopen the seminary has been increasingly discussed with regard to the improvement of human rights and democracy in Turkey. Although it is not a direct condition for EU membership, EU progress reports regarding Turkey mentioned the issue. During his official visit to İstanbul in April 2009, US President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of freedom of religion and the rights of non-Muslim minorities. Obama held a separate meeting with Patriarch Bartholomew, who is known internationally as the spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians worldwide.
Arınç said yesterday that the Law on Foundations, which enables foundations owned by non-Muslim communities to possess property and receive financial assistance, was passed by the government and then taken to the Constitutional Court by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). However, the top court “positively” overturned CHP’s application, giving the government a chance to “meet the valid demands of minorities,” Arınç said.