Monday, 16 August 2010

Theological college remains closed despite Turkish promises

The Holy Theological School of Halki was the main theological school of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople until it was forced to close in 1971

Patrick Comerford

During this week’s holiday in Turkey, the topic of Ramadan has invited a number of casual conversations with Turkish people about religion and about my work and role as a priest within a Christian community.

This is an overwhelmingly Muslim society, and although people may appear casual on the surface about their religious observance, conversations show most people I meet to be deeply devout and observant.

I often find in discussions about Turkey’s hopes for EU membership, the question of an overwhelming Muslim population quickly becomes part of the conversation. Last October, the European Commission warned that Turkey must protect religious rights better if it still hopes to join the EU by 2015. The warning came after the European Court of Human Rights rules that the rights of Orthodox and Protestant parishes had been violated through the denial of opportunities for property ownership and legal registration.

Perhaps it was in response to these reports that the Turkish government earlier this summer ordered local officials to do more to protect the rights of Christians and other non-Muslim religious minorities. This would include returning their confiscated properties and taking action against anti-Christian groups.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has urged “all state organs to uphold the rights of the Christian and Jewish minorities, to behave with respect towards their clergy and to act decisively against all publications inciting hatred and discrimination.”

One of the most noteworthy cases of discrimination against Christians in Turkey for almost 40 years has been the forced closure by the Turkish authorities of the Holy Theological School of Halki, which until 1971 was the main theological school and the primary seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The school is located on Halki (Turkish, Heybeliada), one of the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, where the presence of the Orthodox Church dates back to the Byzantine era, when the Monastery of the Holy Trinity was founded on the island, probably in the mid-ninth century.

The school of theology was established on the grounds of the old monastery after Patriarch Germanos IV visited the island in 1842, and opened on 1 October 1844. An earthquake in June 1894 destroyed all the buildings of the monastery and theological school except for the chapel. But the school and monastery were rebuilt, and reopened in October 1896. Major renovations of the facilities, including the monastery church, were carried out in the 1950s.

An international flavour

The Patriarchate continues to hope that the Turkish government will make good on its promises to allow the seminary to reopen on Halki

Since it was established in 1844, the Holy Theological School of Halki has sought to meet the educational needs of the Patriarchate and the wider Orthodox Church. The students at Halki included both native-born Greeks and Orthodox Christians from around the world who gave the school an international character.

Many Orthodox scholars, theologians, priests, bishops, and patriarchs have graduated from Halki – including the current Patriarch Bartholomeos I and his immediate predecessors, Patriarch Demetrius, Patriarch Athenagoras and Patriarch Maximus V – and many patriarchs, bishops and former teachers of the school are buried on the grounds.

However, the school was forcibly closed in 1971 when a Turkish law was passed prohibiting private universities and privately-owned schools of higher education in Turkey. It has been closed ever since, although the facilities continue to be used in different ways by the Orthodox Church.

Since the Halki Seminary was forced to close, the Patriarchate has faced insurmountable barriers in staffing the Ecumenical Patriarchate to carry out the Church’s many administrative and spiritual responsibilities. At times, the only option left for the Patriarchate has been to bring priest and other people from abroad to work at the ecumenical patriarchate, often illegally, since the Turkish government does not give them work permits.

In 1998, the Turkish government tried to disband the school’s board of trustees. However, international criticism persuaded the authorities in Akara to reverse their order.

Halki has received international attention in recent years, and the European Union has raised the issue as part of its negotiations on Turkish accession to the EU. In October 1998, both houses of the US Congress passed resolutions supporting the reopening of Halki. When President Bill Clinton visited Halki in 1999, he urged the then President, Suleyman Demirel, to allow the school to reopen.

Addressing the Turkish Parliament last year, President Barack Obama echoed calls for the re-opening of Halki Seminary: “Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people.”

The Patriarchate continues to hope that the Turkish government will make good on its promises to allow the seminary to reopen, but this has yet to happen. A report last March said the “Turkish government plans to resume work of an Orthodox Theological seminary on the Island of Halki.” Successive Turkish governments have argued that reopening Halki would open the way for Muslim universities. However, Muslim seminaries were never opened before, and the current Education Minister has said he can see no reason why Halki cannot reopen.

Meanwhile, the seminary buildings are kept in pristine condition. The theological facilities include the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, sports and recreational institutions, dormitories, an infirmary, a hospice, offices, and the school’s library with its historic collection of books, journals, and manuscripts.

The buildings are used for conferences, including the annual International Environmental Symposium sponsored by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but are ready to reopen as a seminary immediately if the Turkish government has the political will to live up to its promises.

What about the future?

The debate about the future of Halki is part of a more worrying debate about the survival of Orthodoxy in Turkey

This debate takes place within the context of another agenda, for the Turkish authorities continue to refuse to recognise the Patriarchate as “Ecumenical” or International. Although the Patriarchate is the focus of unity for Orthodox Christendom, the government seeks to treat it solely as a Turkish institution. Controls and restrictions have been imposed on the process by which the Ecumenical Patriarch is elected, demanding that the Patriarch and the bishops and priests who elect him are Turkish citizens alone.

Turkish law requires that even priests are Turkish citizens. This excludes eligible priests from around the world from attending to Turkey’s Greek community, which now numbers less than 3,000 — most of which are elderly and not eligible candidates.

About 200 Greek Orthodox priests live in Turkey today and they are all Turkish citizens. Without the Halki Seminary, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been forced to send future clergy outside Turkey for training, but many do not return home.

These restrictions severely limit not only who can become a priest, but also who can become the Ecumenical Patriarch. Many people believe these policies are wearing away at the Christian presence in Turkey and threaten to eventually wipe out the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which stands is a focus of unity for Orthodox Christians around the world.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin