Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I in İstanbul has said he learned that a special commission was set up to decide the fate of the Halki Seminary, which has been closed for more than four decades, from newspapers.
The patriarch, referred to as the Fener Rum patriarch in the Turkish press because authorities find the word “ecumenical” politically threatening, spoke to the Milliyet daily in an interview published on Sunday. Bartholomew commented on developments regarding the Halki Seminary, which was established in 1844 on the island of Heybeliada. The seminary was closed in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control.
It was the only school where Turkey's Greek minority educated clergy. The theological school once trained generations of Greek Orthodox leaders, including Patriarch Bartholomew, who is one of its 900 graduates.
Civil society groups have long been arguing that it was closed unlawfully and that its reopening will require political will to bypass obstacles from anti-EU groups in Turkey, but steps in that direction have so far been slow.
Bartholomew said: “We are very sorry about this. It is not easy to understand how a house of knowledge can remain shut for 42 years in a modern Turkey.” He said the Patriarchate had been given false hopes many times about a possible re-opening of the school. “Recently, we read in the Hürriyet daily that a new commission was established, but we are learning about this from the media. There is no representative of the Patriarchate on this commission. It is as if we are not a party relevant to this issue.”
He said of the Halki Seminary: “[Mustafa Kemal] Atatürk didn't shut it down, nor did [İsmet] İnönü or [Adnan] Menderes. It was shut down in 1971 [the year of the March 12 military coup] when there was a politically extraordinary situation in Ankara. And we have been given false hopes so many times since that day. We have been waiting for our school to reopen for 42 years. Where is our school? Where is our freedom of religion? Where is our freedom of education? Where are human rights? Where is [the Treaty of] Lausanne?” The patriarch said that the Lausanne Treaty clearly states that non-Muslim minorities in Turkey can open schools providing religious education using their own funds. He also noted, “We don't want a new school, we just want our school to start operating again.”
The patriarch also commented on preparations to open a new Greek School on Gökçeada (Imbros), an island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Çanakkale province. The Ministry of Education last month gave permission to the Greek community of the island to open a primary school on Gökçeada. He also said it was good news that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered Turkish citizenship to a number of archbishops in 2009, allowing all these individuals to participate in patriarchal elections.
“We are grateful to our prime minister. But the other issues that I have talked about are wearing us out, saddening us. This is also creating an impression that we are second-class citizens. For example, ambassadors, foreign prime ministers and presidents come to visit [the Patriarchate] and they enquire about our situation. When we explain to them the facts, they find it hard to understand. I don't want to put Turkey down, I tell them the facts just like I am telling them now.”
He also said there was a time when the Foreign Ministry tried to block visits from foreign delegations to the Patriarchate.