Voicing determination to expand the rights and freedoms of non-Muslim communities in Turkey, including Orthodox Christians, a senior Cabinet minister has made it clear that such willingness does not mean Ankara recognizes the legal personality of the İstanbul-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
“The institution represented by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew does not have a legal personality under current Turkish law. They don't have a legal personality, but they exist,” Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said on Monday, echoing Ankara's argument that Turkey doesn't consider the patriarchate to be ecumenical, in line with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which governs the status of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey.
Ankara rejects Patriarch Bartholomew's use of the title “ecumenical,” or universal, arguing instead that the patriarch is merely the spiritual leader of İstanbul's dwindling Greek Orthodox community.
The Fener Greek Patriarchate in İstanbul dates back to the 1,100-year-old Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453.
“We are seeking an arrangement that recognizes the existence of the patriarchate but doesn’t offer a legal personality to it, in line with the Lausanne Treaty and our laws,” Arınç said, as he visited the Ankara bureau of Today’s Zaman to join a modest celebration on the fourth anniversary of the establishment of the newspaper.
Arınç underlined that the same was valid for Roman Catholics living in Turkey as well. “For now, it is not possible for us to meet the Vatican’s demands for a legal personality for the Catholic Church in Turkey,” Arınç said.
Turkish authorities say that the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the main agreement regulating minorities in Turkey, recognized only Jews, Armenians and Greek Orthodox communities as minorities, meaning many others, including Roman Catholics, Syriacs and Protestants, were left out. Last year, Pope Benedict XVI said, “The Catholic Church in Turkey is waiting for civil juridical recognition,” noting that this would help the Turkish Catholic community “to enjoy full religious freedom and make an even greater contribution to society.”
In early January, Arınç became the highest-level Turkish official to visit the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in more than half a century, symbolizing the government’s pledges to address the problems of religious minorities and strengthen the country’s bid for European Union membership.
Turkey for decades has ignored demands from the patriarchate due to mistrust stemming from their rivalry with Greece. But Arınç’s visit coincided with government promises to consider reopening a seminary that trained generations of ecumenical patriarchs and return property that the state confiscated from Christian and Jewish minority foundations. In November, Turkey complied with a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling, returning a 19th-century orphanage to the patriarchate.
“We have to dispose of fears, delusions and prejudices. What matters is that different faith groups in Turkey should be able to live freely and peacefully and that their justified demands should be met. This is the approach and the decision of the AK Party [the ruling Justice and Development Party], even if some politicians find such an approach dangerous,” Arınç said. “We will do whatever is ordered by law. Furthermore, we will make the necessary arrangements if some laws are insufficient for meeting these demands because what matters are rights, and we are very careful about that,” he added.
Arınç also reiterated that the government is trying to overcome legal obstacles that stand in the way of reopening the Halki (Heybeliada) Seminary, which has been closed since 1971.
The Halki Seminary, the only school where the Greek minority in Turkey was able to educate its clergymen, was closed in 1971 during a period of tension with Greece over Cyprus and a crackdown on religious education, which 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 maintained by the functioning monastery on its premises.