(CBS) — Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the 300 million-member Orthodox Christian Church, feels “crucified” living in Turkey under a government he says would like to see his nearly 2,000-year-old Patriarchate die out.
His All Holiness speaks to 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon for a story to be broadcast this Sunday, Dec. 20, at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Orthodox Christians trace their roots to the earliest days of Christianity but do not answer to papal authority in Rome. Bartholomew is, in effect, their pope. The Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey, dates back to Roman times, when the city, then Constantinople, was the center of Christianity.
Since then, history has seen the Patriarch and the part of his church in Turkey – who are Turkish citizens of Greek ancestry – discriminated against in their traditional homeland inside what has become modern Turkey, where 99 percent of the people are Muslim. One and a half million were expelled in 1923 and another 150,000 left after violent anti-Christian riots in Istanbul in 1955. A population once numbering near two million is now around 4,000.
“It is not [a]crime…to be a minority living in Turkey but we are treated as…second class,” Bartholomew tells Simon. “We don’t feel that we enjoy our full rights as Turkish citizens.”
Turkish authorities closed churches, monasteries and schools, including its only orthodox Seminary, the Halki School of Theology. According to Turkish law the only potential successors to Bartholomew must be Turkish born and trained at the Halki. “[The Turkish government] would be happy to see the Patriarchate extinguished or moving abroad, but our belief is that it will never happen,” says Bartholomew.
Leaving Turkey is not an option for Bartholomew, the 270th Patriarch, because his church was founded there 17 centuries ago.
The area, Anatolia, is where the young Christian Church began to grow after its beginnings in the Holy Land near Jerusalem. Right in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia can be found, the first great church in Christianity; the four gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John were written in Turkey; in the Cappadocia region, hundreds of chapels contain amazing artwork – probably the oldest Christian art in the world – from the time Rome was ruled by the Caesars. The oldest continuously operating Christian monastery in the world in the Sinai desert in Egypt. It contains a letter that Muslims do not refute was written by the Prophet, Mohammad; the letter instructs Muslims to protect the Christians in the monastery and to respect their faith throughout the world.
Bartholomew finds the letter ironic. “I have visited the prime minister, many ministers, submitting our problems…asking to help us,” he tells Simon. But no help has come his way from the Turkish government, which prides itself on being secular and fears any special treatment for Orthodox Christians could lead to inroads by other religions, especially Islam.
The Patriach is determined to hold his ground. “This is the continuation of Jerusalem and for us an equally holy and sacred land. We prefer to stay here, even crucified sometimes,” says Bartholomew. Asked by Simon if he feels crucified, His All Holiness replies, “Yes, I do.”