Turkey's Grand Gesture
Turkey has come a long way in recent years. Gone is the era and ethos of a country governed by the military and in its place we have a Turkey that is strong and comfortable with itself and its democracy, a Turkey now playing a major role in the region and the world, and a Turkey that will be an economic force to be reckoned with in the coming years . In a nutshell, modern Turkey has come of age.
Only recently, Prime Minister Erdogan was the first senior international figure to visit war ravaged Somalia in twenty years. His was the voice, of all voices in the Muslim world, which spoke out most strongly against Israel in its war on Gaza. His was the voice that demanded change from the Syrian government.
His has been the voice steering a moderate course between Islam and Turkey’s secular Constitution, winning support for his strategy from the Turkish people in both elections and referendums.
In playing such an important role on the world stage, it is time now, then, for Turkey to address once and for all a problem that causes pain to its small Christian minority. Being such a small minority they offer no threat, either to Islam or to the secular nature of the Turkish republic. In addressing the problem, though, Turkey will show just how much she has really grown up.
The split in Christendom which took place in 1054 left the Christian Church torn in half. The Western Church was presided over by theBishop of Rome, the pope. The Eastern Church was led by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Whilst the Western Church flourished in Europe, the coming of Islam to Constantinople in 1453 meant that the Christians within the Ottoman Empire were a minority.
Having dwindled over the years there are today less than three thousand Greek Orthodox Christians in the whole of Turkey. The Patriarchate of Constantinople is nonetheless still the spiritual home to over three hundred million Greek Orthodox Christians throughout the world, all looking to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, as their spiritual father. Just as Rome is to Roman Catholics or Makkah is to Muslims, Constantinople (Istanbul) is to the Greek Orthodox.
Looking at the situation from outside it seems clear that having the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul brings glory on the country, just as having the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt is a blessing and a richness for Egypt.
Often asked why the Greek Orthodox citizens in his country don’t just leave and go to live somewhere else, Bartholomew replies that “we are Turks and Turkey is our home.” In visiting countries where the Greek Orthodox Church is strong, Bartholomew I is received as a Head of State. In his own country he is recognised merely as the bishop of a small flock.
That, though, isn’t the problem. A man of faith surely does not crave red carpets and 21-Gun salutes, and Bartholomew I is without doubt a man of deep faith. The problem, felt acutely as a source of deep pain by both the Patriarch and by Greek Orthodox Christians throughout the world, is that their seminary, where their students for the priesthood are trained, has been closed since 1971, under a law prohibiting private institutions of higher education and designed to bring universities under state control.
Turkish Law, though, requires that Orthodox priests in Turkey be Turkish. Put very bluntly, without Turks being able to train as priests, the Church in Turkey cannot function and its future is grim.
Situated one hour by boat from Istanbul on Heybeliada, one of the Princes islands, the Halki Seminary was founded in 1844, on a Christian site founded one thousand years earlier. It is a place of great importance for the Greek Orthodox Church throughout the world, since many of its greatest leaders, including Bartholomew himself, were themselves trained there.
The seminary sits atop a hill, known as the Hill of Hope, and it is located within the grounds of the monastery of the Holy Trinity. Although closed, the school is still maintained by this monastery. Within the surrounding garden are buried patriarchs, bishops and teachers of the school.
The school’s library is considered one of the largest in the world in old and rare works. So, you see why the seminary has such a strong place in the hearts of the Orthodox faithful. What is more, they know that without it their Church in Turkey is destined to disappear.
History and spirituality are one thing. Politics is another. And politics have played a strong part in keeping the seminary closed. Many say that there are, for example, political issues outside Turkey that need to be resolved first. There is the situation of Muslims in Western Thrace who feel that their own rights are being denied. There is the tragic split in the island of Cyprus, which sees no sign of being resolved.
Many see a reciprocity between these issues and the opening of the seminary.
There are some Muslims in Turkey who oppose the seminary, seeing it as an affront to Islam itself. This latter group know little of the history of Islam, even as recently as during the Ottoman Empire when religious pluralism was allowed and encouraged.
As far back as 1453 the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II had granted the title “Chief Wise Man” of the Empire to the leader of the Jewish community and “leader of the Orthodox peoples” within the Empire to the Orthodox Patriarch.
There are others, within Turkey itself, who claim that they would like to re-open the seminary, but that it would open the door for all kinds of other private institutions, which the secular republic does not want to see.
Life doesn’t always fit into the boxes we want it to. Sometimes there are very worthy and justifiable exceptions to every rule. Linking the seminary’s re-opening to the situation of Muslims in Western Thrace or to the divided Island of Cyprus is to miss the point.
These issues need, of course, to be resolved, but if something is right it should be done, whatever the consequences or the administrative inconveniences it might cause.
It is time to forget the language and the mistakes of the past. If mistakes were made, on both sides, it is time to move forward. Forget the pressure from the United States or from the European Union. Turkey does not need to bow to any foreign pressure. For her own sake and the sake of her own citizens it is time for the Halki Seminary to be re-opened.
It doesn’t matter in what language it is couched. Call it a matter of justice. Call it a grand gesture. Whatever you call it, from its position of strength, the Turkish government would indeed be making a magnanimous gesture to its Christian citizens in allowing them to train their leaders and to cater for their faithful.
In doing so, strong and proud, Turkey would show the world just how far it has come.
Idris Tawfiq was received by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul in December 2008. He met the Patriarch of Alexandria in July 2011.