ANKARA – Daily News with wires
Turkey is considering a demand by the Istanbul-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to reopen a seminary that trained generations of patriarchs, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said Monday.
“We will try to meet them from a legal point of view,” Arınç said following the meeting with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I. “As the government, we consider it a duty to meet the rightful demands of our citizens who have been living on this land for centuries.”
The Halki seminary on Heybeliada, an island near Istanbul, was a major center of theological learning for more than a century until it was closed in 1971 by a law designed to bring all universities under state control.
The move deprived the Orthodox Church, seated in Istanbul since Byzantine times, of its only facility to train clergy in Turkey. The European Union and the United States have long pressed Ankara to reopen the school.
“We have entered a new year. I came here to extend best wishes for 2011 and to wish health and happiness in this new year,” said Arınç in explaining the reason for his patriarchal visit, his first. “During our meeting with [Patriarch] Bartholomew last August, I told him I would visit him. I wish this visit to be a beneficial start.”
Arınç became the highest-level Turkish official to visit the patriarchate since a 1952 visit by then-Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, Anatolia news agency said.
Patriarch Bartholomew thanked the government for recent measures to improve the rights of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities but stressed that more must be done.
“We expect further steps. Naturally, we expect the reopening of our seminary,” the patriarch said in televised remarks, Agence France-Presse reported. “Hopefully, the government will realize its goodwill on the issue.”
Patriarch Bartholomew hailed Turkey’s overtures toward minorities as “openings for democracy and Westernization,” saying he hoped the seminary could be reopened this year, 40 years after its closure.
Patriarch Bartholomew said he also thanked Arınç for initiatives made to their community and other communities. “There are not the initiatives for the Armenians, Jews or Greek Orthodox but initiatives for democracy. These are initiatives made to make Turkey more modern.”
Government working to improve minorities’ lot
Arınç said he was accepting responsibility to ensure that different belief groups live in peace and happiness in Turkey.
“The community foundations and the patriarchate may have many needs and demands. From time to time, we have talks with the patriarch and his colleagues to meet the demands within the scope of law,” Arınç said.
“New arrangements were made with the new Law on Foundations. We should grant the rights within the scope of those arrangements. Our political will is strong in this respect. The application made by Republican People’s Party [the main opposition party, CHP] for the new Foundations Law was rejected by the Constitutional Court. We are the caretaker of a civilization complying with the rights, beliefs and cultures of others. We are obliged to establish and maintain good relations with all our citizens,” Arınç said.
“We take into consideration the problems of foundations, communities, the patriarchate and the peoples with respect to laws. We have not granted anything regarding the seminary on our own,” the deputy prime minister said, adding that a recent decision from both the European Court of Human Rights and a local Turkish court had turned over control of an old orphanage building on Istanbul’s Büyükada Island to the Greek Orthodox Church. The orphanage was confiscated from the church in 1997.
“Works on other issues are continuing. There are the decisions of the Constitutional Court. There are some other legal impediments and issues that we consider as an obstacle stemming from some international agreements. We will overcome all of them. As a requirement of law, those should be restituted to right holders. We will do what the laws order us to do,” Arınç said.
Patriarch Bartholomew said the new Law on Foundations provided new opportunities to minority communities even if the law was not completely satisfactory.
Turkish officials have said they are willing to reopen the seminary but have cited procedural snags because the school does not fit into existing categories in the country’s education system. Without the seminary, the church has no means of training clergy, making it difficult to find a successor for Bartholomew I.
To make up for the shortage, Ankara has granted Turkish citizenship to several senior clerics at the church – a requirement for the aging Patriarch Bartholomew’s successor.
Despite the recent steps, Ankara has refused to recognize the patriarch’s “ecumenical” title, considering him only the spiritual head of Turkey’s tiny Greek Orthodox minority.