The EU and the US have frequently criticized Turkey for not reopening the Halki Greek Orthodox seminary -- which experts say is related to Turkey's interpretation of secularism -- and failing to take measures to protect the patriarchate's property rights. The patriarchate is under the protection of international law, as outlined in the Treaty of Lausanne. The patriarch has long complained about the status of the seminary, located on the island of Heybeliada near İstanbul, as well as other property issues. The government says it has been assessing a number of legal options to reopen the Halki seminary, which Bartholomew says is of vital importance for the survival of the Greek Orthodox clergy.
“I expressed my congratulations to the prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] for his efforts to protect the rights of religious minorities. I am very pleased to hear his decision to reopen the Halki Seminary on Heybeliada,” Obama stated following a private talk with Erdoğan on Sunday morning.
The two leaders have held wide-ranging talks covering Syria, Iran, the fight against terrorism and the protection of minorities on the eve of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul.
On Monday, Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bağış also claimed that opening the seminary is an important issue in terms of minority rights in Turkey. Bağış also criticized Greece for not taking similar steps to protect the rights of its Turkish Muslim population.
“The opening of the seminary is not a threat for Turkey. It would, on the contrary, be an asset … While taking these steps, Turkey stressed the importance of concurrent initiatives by Greek authorities in terms extending religious rights of the Muslim population in Greece. Greece should be aware of its democratic responsibilities as an EU member country,” Bağış stated.
Turkish minorities have major problems in Greece, such as the right to receive education and the right to elect a religious leader (mufti) for the Turkish community.
During a meeting with former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou on March 22 in İstanbul, Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew praised Turkish plans to reopen the seminary, according to media reports.
“We [the Turkish Orthodox community] can be hopeful for the reopening of the seminary in the near future,” stated Bartholomew.
Turkey was listed in a 2012 US report on religious freedoms as being among the world's worst violators of religious freedoms. The report, which was prepared by the bipartisan US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), caused widespread outrage among Turkish politicians.