‘Istanbul is anxious’

Lots of press attention being paid to the possible reopening of the Halki Seminary in the wake of Patriarch Kirill’s visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. (The patriarch is now back in Moscow where he met with President Obama.)

In his analysis of the Bartholomew-Kirill meeting for Today’s Zaman, Ali Murat Yel argues for a reopening of the seminary (known to Turks as Heybeliada) if the Turkish state “wishes to be counted among the civilized and democratic countries in the world.” The writer also said that “Istanbul is anxious about the revival and renaissance of the Russian Church, as its weight and power might lead it to claim the overarching leadership of the Orthodox Church in the near future. The claim would not be groundless because the Patriarchate of Moscow has some 95 million followers, which constitute more than one third of the 250 million Orthodox worldwide.” Then there’s the problem of where to find Turkish clergy for the Ecumenical Patriarchate:

The closure of the seminary by the Turkish state was something against religious liberties in the first place. The Turkish state will allow the İstanbul patriarch to take and discuss the issue with foreign officials and garner support for the cause by keeping it closed. Otherwise, the clergy of the İstanbul Patriarchate will continue to receive their education in Greek seminaries or the monastery of Mount Athos in Greece. Furthermore, the state insists on having a Turkish citizen as a patriarch, yet it will be more difficult in the future to find a Turkish citizen to lead the İstanbul Church unless they are educated in Turkey. Otherwise, the İstanbul Church would be forced to naturalize clergy coming from other countries, without any knowledge of Turkish society or the state’s attitude towards the Church. These naturalized officials would also rely on their native countries in times of difficulty.


On the Reuters Faith World blog
, Ayla Jean Yackley has a nice overview of the issue and frames the position of those Turks who want to keep the seminary closed this way:

Opponents of the seminary say it violates the secular constitution and reopening it would prompt radical Islamists to demand their own schools. All of Turkey’s Islamic theology faculties are located at strictly regulated state universities. Some Turks also fear it would legitimise Bartholomew’s ecumenical, or universal, title. Unlike most countries, Turkey doesn’t recognise that designation, arguing Bartholomew is only the head of the country’s tiny flock of Greek Orthodox.

Re-establishing a seminary would create an Orthodox “Vatican City” in Istanbul that could serve as a Fifth Column of Greece, the country’s historical foe, they argue. After all, Turkey closed Halki during a period of tension with Greece over Cyprus.

Yackley cites an April report on the Halki controversy by Turkish think tank TESEV (download the 40-page “Discussions and Recommendations on the Future of the Halki Seminary” here.) I quoted an earlier version of this report in my commentary “A Patriarch in Dire Straits.”

As for the Turkish resistance to opening the seminary, TESEV authors Elcin Macar and Mehmet Ali Gokacti outline two main views:

The first viewpoint is the more conservative one and was probably instrumental in creating the policy currently pursued towards the Greek Patriarch in Turkey. It states that the (Halki Seminary) HS is the Military College of the Patriarchate, and even of the Megali Idea. Turkey cannot therefore be expected to allow Greece to educate clergymen who will support such imperialist ideology. In the second position, a framework of “reciprocity” is advocated. That is to say, the issue can be used as a bargaining chip to bring Greece to a compromising position in order to help solve the problems of the Western Thrace Turks.

This group includes Kemalists, secularists sensitive to this issue, nationalists, and a smaller segment of the “Islamic Group” who emphasize nationalism.

Secularists fear that if the HS is permitted to open a school, Islamic groups would also demand to open religious schools. This could be a slippery slope and could permanently damage the secular system. This view can be critiqued in several ways. First, these groups either do not know or choose to ignore that the Megali Idea (Great Idea) was abandoned by Greece after the defeat in 1922. It is no longer the main aim of Greek foreign policy. The critics however are not uncomfortable if clergyman candidates from this “Turkish institution” have had education outside Turkey where they may learn “dangerous” ideologies. Furthermore, they cannot produce any evidence suggesting that clergymen of Megali Idea are educated at the said seminary. The Patriarchate failed to meet the requirements after the seminary was closed down and became dependent of the Greek Church in the education of clergymen. This sits in opposition with what the aforesaid people wanted.

The second criticism concerns a contradiction in argument. It is argued that problems of the HS are an internal matter – the Patriarchate is a “Turkish institution” – yet it could be used as a bargaining tool, particularly in relations with Greece. Moreover, the principle of “reciprocity” does not exist in Lausanne. Such a situation recalls Article 45 of the Treaty, which suggests that minority rights in Turkey are also valid and binding for Moslems in Greece.

Lausanne is a multilateral treaty, not a bilateral treaty between Greece and Turkey. In other words, parties thereto are liable to all signatories. Discrimination against or violation of the rights made to its citizens by Greece or Turkey cannot therefore be an excuse for the other to implement the same sanctions on its own citizens. Turkey has been pursuing a policy regarding its non-Moslem citizens within the logic of “reciprocity”, which it has called within the “Lausanne order” and defended criticisms on the same grounds. Such a mentality, which caused the Greek Community to decrease in number, and the Community in Western Thrace to all but disappear, should be abandoned.

The second viewpoint supports the elimination of all obstacles in front of the Patriarch, resulting in the opening of the seminary. This can be divided into three groups. First, some support a pragmatic approach that includes the opening of the seminary and supporting the Patriarchate at home and abroad. This could be approached as national interest as it would be advantageous to Turkey in various ways, including aspects of foreign policy and the EU membership process.

A second group emphasizes minority rights, human rights, freedoms and democracy, and argues that non-Moslems already have had rights to educate clergymen as per the Lausanne Treaty and multilateral agreements signed thereafter. This study is in line with this view.

The third group is the “Islamic Group.” As this group may react negatively, it must be dealt with more carefully if the HS is opened. The allegation that this group will oppose the opening of the seminary is not necessarily true. It is evident in press statements and its representatives’ statements that most of this group is not opposed to the opening of the HS. Rather it is only a few small parties and publications with relatively more nationalist tendencies.

There are two reasons this group is not opposed to the opening of the HS. The first one is that this group starts with notions of Islamic history and practices, and argues that Islam confers members of other religions with the right to live as required by their own standards. The effect of the Ottoman’s millet system over such an understanding is quite large. Additionally, there is an expectation that the opening of the HS would set a precedent and would therefore be helpful in removing “restrictions” believed to exist on Islamic groups.

These understandings of the issue are seen clearly in the government’s evaluations of the matter. Through their statements such as “I would think the same way even if the EU did not exist. This is what my religion orders and my culture requires me to do”, they have displayed that the seminary should be opened. However the government’s uneasiness derives from the fear that there will be a strong negative reaction on the grounds that if the government opens the seminary at the request of Westerners, it unfairly confers religious rights on non-Moslems and denies the same rights to Moslems. But a very essential difference is overlooked in that there is a class of clergymen in Christianity, and for Christians it would not be possible to worship without them. From this point of view, to draw parallels between Islamic vocational religious schools and the HS would not be accurate.

It may be observed that most conservative groups in Turkey are not opposed to opening the HS even if they have some hesitations. And it is also striking that some groups considered to be Islamic have religious and nationalistic sensitivities and use the same arguments as certain secular groups opposed to opening the HS.

Besides tolerance for other faiths, another reason why Islamic groups support opening the HS is because of the understanding that it would set a precedent for Moslems, potentially leading to solutions to issues they face. The view that problems faced by imams and preachers (İmam Hatip schools) as well as restrictions on Qur’an courses could be solved through such an example or could be instrumental in alleviating parts of the problem is common among these circles.

For the said group, the opening of the HS has great significance; despite there being little similarity between imams, preachers and Qur’an courses with the HS, they are all institutions providing religious education and have suffered from certain misinterpretations of secularism in Turkey. Again another issue we should emphasize is that conservative groups know and recognize that the HS only trains priests.

Turkey’s approach towards religious institutions and the understanding of secularism during the Republican era are also reflected in decisions related to religious education institutions, and policies towards imams and preachers. The HS has demonstrated some similarities.

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