Limited Religious Freedom in Turkey

The situation for the Ecumenical Patriarch in Turkey, the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians, is difficult. The very existence of the Patriarchate is threatened by a law on private schools that was recently passed by the parliament in Ankara. Cyrill Stieger reports

The sound of hammering and sawing can be heard in the Phanar district on Istanbul's Golden Horn, the official seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. The front of the multistoried, timber-faced building is partially covered by scaffolding.

The Turkish flag waves at the entrance. This time there was no difficulty at all in obtaining permission for the renovation work, emphasizes the Patriarchate's press officer, Dositheos Anagnostopoulos. That has not always been the case, however.

After a fire in 1941, they had to wait more than 40 years before the Turkish government gave its approval for the reconstruction. That fact that it went so quickly this time is probably related to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI at the end of November.

Deep-seated distrust

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who has been in office since 1991, has a difficult time in Turkey. He is not only the religious head of the Greek Orthodox minority in Istanbul but also – as was true during the Byzantine Empire and under Ottoman rule – the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians.

Even today, the Patriarch's jurisdiction still extends beyond Turkey. Several Greek islands, including Crete, fall within his area of responsibility.

In addition, over 30 dioceses in northern Greece are under the control of the Patriarch, although they have largely been administered by the Archbishop of Athens since the 1920s. Also within his jurisdiction are the monastic republic on Mount Athos and the Greek Orthodox diaspora communities in Western Europe and overseas.

Unlike the Pope, Bartholomew I has no authority to issue directives. Among the Orthodox patriarchs, he is primus inter pares.

For Ankara, however, the Ecumenical Patriarch is simply the spiritual leader of the Greek minority in Turkey. It is only in this capacity that he is officially recognized. The reason for this is that under the peace treaty which was concluded in Lausanne in July 1923 after the Greco-Turkish war, in addition to the caliphate, all other religious leadership positions from the time of the Ottoman Empire were also abolished.

Yet the patriarchate is not mentioned in the document that grants non-Muslim religions in Turkey the status of minorities with extensive rights.

A potential threat to the centralized Turkish state

For Turkish nationalists, the Patriarch's retention of the title "Ecumenical" is proof that he is pursuing political goals. They still regard the Christian minorities as an alien element or even a potential threat to the centralized Turkish state.

A European flag with a swastika in the midst of the circle of stars hangs in the office of the lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz, who is chairman of a lawyers' association and ranks as one of the leaders of the ultranationalists. That says everything about his attitude toward the EU.

Among other things, Kerincsiz brought charges against Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. The lawyer maintains in all seriousness that the Ecumenical Patriarch wants to establish a second Vatican in Istanbul, a Greek papal state encompassing the entire Golden Horn.

He says the Greeks are already in the process of buying buildings in the areas they have laid claim to.

During the period of Ottoman rule, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople unquestionably had a powerful position. Non-Muslim subjects were divided according to their religious affiliation. The so-called millets were religious communities with minority status, confessionally defined "nations."

They had a certain autonomy and their own system of jurisprudence. As spiritual head of the Christian Orthodox millets, the Ecumenical Patriarch also had political functions, which he did not lose until the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War and the proclamation of the Turkish nation-state in 1923.

Dwindling Greek minority

The charges leveled at the Patriarchate by Turkish ultranationalists today are all the more abstruse, since the Greek minority has dwindled to a few thousand members. The proportion of Christians in the total Turkish population of over 70 million is quite insignificant. According to the Patriarchate, 6000 to 7000 Orthodox Christians still live in Turkey, including 4000 who speak Greek. The rest are Arabs, Bulgarians, or Russians.

Apart from the Greek minority, only the Armenian and Jewish minorities are still officially recognized. The membership of the Armenian Apostolic Church is estimated at 50,000, that of the Jews at 20,000. The government refuses to grant minority status to the, at most, 10,000 remaining Assyrian Christians in Turkey, however. This contradicts the Lausanne peace treaty, which only refers to non-Muslim minorities. Nowhere does it list specific groups.

Under the Lausanne treaty, non-Muslim minorities are entitled to operate their own schools and use their languages in these schools. The document also says that Turkish citizens who are members of non-Muslim minorities shall have the same political rights as Muslims. In the view of representatives of the minority groups, however, the rights guaranteed in the peace treaty are systematically violated.

Closed seminary

At the moment, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is particularly critical of the law on private schools that was recently passed by the Turkish parliament. It stipulates that only those members of non-Muslim minorities who are also Turkish citizens may attend private schools. This provision has serious implications for the Patriarchate.

In Anagnostopoulos's opinion, the new law for all practical purposes means the end of the seminary on the island of Heybeli (Greek: Halki) located south of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. The Turkish government closed the seminary, where generations of Greek Orthodox priests had been trained, when it nationalized all private institutions of higher education in 1971.

In view of the dwindling number of Greeks with Turkish citizenship, teaching without foreign instructors and students would hardly be possible any more, even if the seminary were reopened.

The situation is also compounded by the fact that foreign priests of the Patriarchate are normally not granted residence and work permits. They are forced to enter Turkey as tourists. Furthermore, the Ecumenical Patriarch must be a Turkish citizen.

Hence, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a suitable successor for Bartholomew I, who was born in 1940. According to Anagnostopoulos, only five of the sixteen Greek Orthodox metropolitans in Turkey are under 60 years old. Thus the very existence of the Patriarchate is threatened.

Why is there no sign of deterioration?

The theological seminary on the island of Heybeli is ideally situated on a small wooded hill. The entrance is locked. A Turkish flag flutters on the roof of the building. The Turkish guard opens the gate for the visitor only after conferring with the Greek Orthodox monks in the monastery located on the grounds.

The impressive building, which has been vacant for over 30 years, is in excellent condition, as is the magnificent garden. Inside as well, everything is clean; there is not the slightest sign of deterioration.

The classrooms look as though the seminarians had left them the night before. Only the desks date from a time long past. Obviously, great importance is attached to taking care of the property. There is a reason for this. The Ecumenical Patriarchate wants to prevent the Turkish government from being able to justify its persistent refusal to reopen the seminary with the argument that the building is in poor condition.

At the moment there is no indication that the government will yield on this issue, which is so vital for the future of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Patriarchate refuses to accept the assimilation of the seminary into the state-controlled University of Istanbul on the grounds that the seminary is not simply a theological university but an institution for training clergy. As such, it must remain independent.

There should not be any religious schools in a secular state such as Turkey, asserts Kemal Kerincsiz. He emphatically opposes reopening the seminary. Here as well, he senses a threat to the Turkish state.

He contends that Greece and the Patriarchate want to train "missionary agents" on the island of Heybeli, the same as before the Turkish war of independence. The goal is to "Christianize" Turkey and thus regain the territories in Asia Minor that were lost in 1922.

Demanding a reform of foundation law

Of course, by no means do all Turks agree with such conspiracy theories. Yet, despite its commitment to Turkey's EU integration and contrary to its verbal pledges, the government does little to bring the rights of Christian religious groups and non-Muslim minorities into line with European standards. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is not recognized as a legal entity.

It is not a legal personality and therefore is at the mercy of the state. Church property must be registered to religious foundations. Real estate belonging to foundations is still being expropriated, however. The Patriarchate has no chance to contest such encroachments in Turkish courts. If the state wants to confiscate church property, it always finds a pretext, says Anagnostopoulos. Thus, the Patriarchate is demanding a reform of foundation law and, with it, a clarification of the property issue.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate is one of the staunch supporters of Turkey's accession to the EU. It hopes for an improvement in the legal position of non-Muslim religious groups and minorities. Yet, particularly in this area, there has been little progress. Anagnostopoulos says he is finding it increasingly difficult not to lose hope.

Cyrill Stieger

© NZZ/ 2006

This article was previously published in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson

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