The Halki Seminary and the Patriarchate’s Existential Crisis


AFP reported on Thursday that the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul, Bartholomew I, was hopeful Turkey would re-open a historic seminary it shut down nearly four decades ago. The Halki Orthodox

Theological Seminary, located on the island of Halki off the coast of Istanbul, was the key Patriarchical institution for educating the Greek Orthodox Community and training its future clergy for more than a century before it was closed down by the Turkish government in 1971.

The Patriarch was responding to signals last week by Turkey’s Culture Minister that Ankara is planning to re-open the Greek seminary, considered vital to the survival of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul.

The Turkish Government forcibly closed down the Seminary under a law bringing Turkish universities under the state’s control. Another law, however, made it illegal for anyone to enter the Orthodox priesthood unless they have graduated from Halki.

Since the closure of the Halki Seminary, the Patriarchate has faced insurmountable barriers in staffing the Ecumenical Patriarchate to carry out the Church’s many administrative and spiritual responsibilities. The only option left for the Patriarchate has been to bring clergymen and individuals from abroad to work at the ecumenical patriarchate, often illegally, since the Turkish government does not give them work permits.

halki2Furthermore, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has no property rights in Turkey and is taxed beyond excess. Under Turkish law, the General Directorate of Welfare Foundations has the power to unilaterally confiscate minority properties.

Along with the Halki Seminary, the Turkish Government has confiscated (usually secretly) 75 % of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s properties, including homes, apartment buildings, schools, land, churches, monasteries, and even cemeteries.

On March 20, 2006 the government erased the name of the Patriarchate from the ownership deed of the Orphanage of Buyukada, replacing it with the name of a minority foundation it had seized in 1997. This move resulted in the effective confiscation of the orphanage.

The Turkish government proceeded with the confiscation despite an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights by the Patriarchate in 2005. The Orphanage, which is the largest wooden building in Europe, had been a Patriarchal institution, celebrating 550 years of continuous service under the care and guidance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, preserving the Orthodox Faith, Hellenic Ideals and Greek Education.

In the eyes of the Turkish government, the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not exist as a legal entity, and as a result, has virtually no rights. Although it was established in 451 AD, Turkish authorities refuse to recognize the Patriarchate as “Ecumenical” or International. Turkish law has relegated this 2,000 year-old church, which serves as the focal point of Orthodox Christendom, to a Turkish institution.

As a result, the Turkish government also controls the process by which the Ecumenical Patriarch is selected. Through illegal decrees, the government has imposed heavy restrictions on the election of the Ecumenical Patriarchs, requiring the Patriarch and the Hierarchs that elect him to be Turkish citizens. The very existence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been put in jeopardy as a consequence of these decrees.

Turkish law requires that even priests must be Turkish citizens. This excludes eligible clergy 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.

There are currently roughly 200 Greek Orthodox Clergymen who live in Turkey and are Turkish citizens. Without the Halki Seminary, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been forced to send its future clerics outside the country for training. Unfortunately, most do not return home. These restrictions severely limit not only who can become a priest, but also who can become the Ecumenical Patriarch.
These policies are wearing away at the Christian presence in Turkey and threaten to eventually wipe out the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which stands as a 2,000 year-old spiritual beacon for more than 300,000 million orthodox Christians around the world.

Since 1923, successive Turkish Governments have subjected the Ecumenical Patriarchate to a protracted and systemic campaign of institutional and cultural repression, squeezing the country’s Greek minority and its religious institutions to the point of complete exhaustion and despair.

Despite direct stipulations in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that Turkey must legally recognize and protect its religious minorities, Christian communities in Turkey currently face unfair official restrictions regarding the ownership and operation of churches and seminaries. The Turkish Government interferes in the selection of their religious leaders. Christian education has all but vanished, while freedom of expression and association, although provided for on paper, tend to get people killed.

This political climate of religious repression has, for decades, encouraged extremists to attack the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul defacing its walls and desecrating its cemeteries.

In 1955, riots broke out in Istanbul and quickly turned into pogroms against Greeks as 73 Orthodox churches and 23 schools were vandalized, burned, or destroyed; 1,004 houses of Orthodox citizens were looted; and 4,348 stores, 110 hotels, 27 pharmacies, and 21 factories were destroyed. The Greek Orthodox population in 1955 was 100,000. In 1998, a Greek Orthodox official was murdered at his church, Saint Therapon, in Istanbul. The church was then robbed and set on fire.

Halki_seminary_cemetery (Medium)Growing focus on Turkey in recent years and the country’s bid to join the European Union, has raised awareness and concern about the fate of the Patriarchate among governments, organizations and people around the world.

The European Union has long asked Turkey to re-open the seminary in order to prove its commitment to human rights as it strives to become a member of the bloc.

The Turkish Government, keen to boost its European credentials as it seeks EU membership, says it may finally take steps to prevent the destruction of one of the world’s oldest Christian churches and its Congregation.

The bitter reality is that the very existence of the Patriarchate has been threatened by the very government that is now vaguely promising to save it.

Turkish authorities have been issued such promises for decades.


  1. Dean Calvert :

    Is it possible that the EP and the supporting institutions are as inept at protecting it’s rights inside Turkey as they are in their activities in North America?

    One has to wonder…these are the same guys who sent Fr. Elpidoforos over here to lecture us about “submission”…is it possible they are equally inept in their own backyard?

    This article raises an incredible number of questions – one would think that their #1 job might be establishing a stable base for operations – behind which all of their activities (Archons/Leadership 100/PR efforts by the GOA etc) would be marshalled.

    What a shame they have not figured out that a united Orthodox Church in America would be their biggest ally and most effective instrument of leverage vis-a-vis the Turkish government.

    Will they figure it out before they perish?

    One wonders.

    Best Regards,

  2. George Michalopulos :

    Indeed, one can only wonder.

  3. History tells us Appeasement is a horrible disease that only emboldens evil.

    The GOA and the EP have yet to learn this.

  4. George Patsourakos :

    According to Turkey’s Culture Minister, Turkey may soon reopen the Halki Orthodox Theological Seminary off the coast of Istanbul, which was closed down by the Turkish government in 1971.

    The primary reason that Turkey may reopen this Seminary is because Turkey has been struggling for years to join the European Union(EU).

    One of the prerequisites that the EU has imposed on Turkey for EU membership is that Turkey must first reopen this Seminary.

    Consequently, Turkey has no choice but to reopen the Halki Seminary, in order to join the EU.

    Incidentally, Turkey must also relinquish its control of the northern third of the island of Cyprus — which it took over in 1974 — before it will be allowed to join the EU.

  5. Turkey and Europe.
    Entrenched Positions

    1.A striking case is the decade’s long whish of the Orthodox Patriarchate (Phener) to restart its Halki Theological department, a whish that despite strong international back up hasn’t been granted yet.

    A tricky issue for those who want to comment as all parties involved share a common aspect: looking to the past: tight up to past “idealized” positions with a chronic fear to leave entrenched positions.
    Turkey, a country much beloved personally, with a craving for modernisation and European membership; simultaneously wrestling with his own created myths and glorious but difficult past, hoping to explore its economical and social opportunities in a modern context but handicapped by its still imperfect democratisation and its historical difficult balance between civil and military powers.
    Religious minorities and Muslim sects, having faced century-long discrimination and suppression, having used every bit of opportunity to strive for more freedom and equal rights as applied and guaranteed in Western Countries. Minorities with also very strong traditional concepts and eagerly claiming rapid progress but still looked at with mistrust.

    2.A serious challenge, if not impossible.

    A secular state but with an overwhelming Muslim influence. A religion which hasn’t yet gone through the critical analyses and investigations of the up to date sciences and consequently is considered overwhelmingly fundamentalist and a serious handicap to cast Turkey in a western democratic concept and society.

    The European community, still wrestling with the newly and very hastily, admitted ex Comecon members and its own internal unsettled concept and overly complicated and costly organisation, is looking desperately for excuses not to accept Turkey too soon as a full member.
    Turkey is or cannot comply with the requirements of a full membership and has it difficult what it considers to drop its proper identity and political approach. Rightfully so it should be given the opportunity to keep the good treasures and aspects of its own glorious past and local Muslim traditions. Be it that Turkey always was part of the European history and continent its Muslim religion aspect gave it its specific character that nowadays should be cast into a system and concept that fits the basic principles and values of the European Community.

    3.So a long and difficult work is ahead of us.

    So let me face the wrath of all parties involved and tackle an issue which I’m a bit more familiar with as an Orthodox Christian, living abroad but with about 40 years of personal experience of Turkey.

    In fact to illustrate the complexity and pitfalls I’m taking the issue of religious freedom for religious minorities , particularly the difficult situation of the Seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate; in plain Turkish referred to as the” Phener”.
    Referring to the Treaty of Lausanne the Orthodox Church should have an easy life. Like in the Western world they would be able to run their own business and organize their own affairs, in fact they should also be financed or at least not financially be harassed, with their religion lessons in public schools and the possibility to have their own educational system be it with a minimum standard C.V., this including their own academic training facilities.

    In daily practice life their situation being much better than f.e. the Surian Orthodox Christians or the protestant sects, it is very far from the Western situation. The European Union is for decades making a serious point about that and the progress made is very, very slow and with apparent reluctance and large internal opposition.
    The Dynia, Department of religious affairs having a very impressive budget has a strict control on the Muslim community and organisations; they keep the purse, distribute it generously provided one follow the strict rules by the Dynai. A strange situation for outsiders but a very practical solution for the Turkish situation: at least still in the opinion of many politicians and military leaders. Minorities live the Alevis and Christians are not very hot to be controlled by the same people, particularly as they claim that the growing influence of the AK Party is threatening the secularisation and supporting actively the Muslim Umna.

    The Patriarch, in fact the sole leader of the Orthodox community, has a terrible problem; about 91 churches in Istanbul, empty Schools, lot’s of unused property despite the heavy confiscating of property in the past century, a dwindling number of Rums ( original Greek speaking Turkish people; about 2.200 estimated ) ; a growing ( non Turkish) Christian population, Orthodox, no legal status or protection and steady harassment from mainly local authorities or legal persecution on different matters.
    With an “old time” organisation, far too large for the local flock but somehow needed for the worldwide care which is attributed to him by the Orthodox Churches, he is handicapped by the old age of the majority of his local clergy and, accordingly the Patriarch, because of the continued closure of the theological Halki school not in a position to train new clergy.

    That the Phener is largely financed by the Greek government and private U.S. funds, next to the contributions of the world wide flock is looked at with mistrust. The Dynia however is steadily setting up organisations and financing mosques all over the world, very rightfully so I would say, but at least gives the impression that to return the courtesy and let this freely happen in Turkey doesn’t seem to them to be a good idea. Their imams are accepted and receive permits to serve as such; the Christians in Turkey aren’t allowed to have foreign priests serve their churches (only with three months visa in practice)

    4.Islam faculties or seats are largely accepted in all Western Democratic countries, f.e. only in Germany 12 chairs Islam Departments have been established both by local authorities and or in large private academic institutes and also partly staffed with foreign( Muslim) specialists. In Turkey, like in dominant Muslim countries, this isn’t the case for Christian theological faculties. Inter religious Departments without any ideological background or purposes, widely spread in the Western world still have to be basically realized in those dominantly Muslim areas.
    Time for Turkey to start such academic policy and allow financed chairs to be set up too by private institutes. There are abundant exemplas in the Western world to receive inspiration and collaboration. Nothing new has to be invented.
    Of course the Phener does dispose of many high level theological institutes both in Europe, the States and other continents. Theoretically the Phener doesn’t have a need to reopen the Halki theological school and in fact in my opinion the completely outdated concept and building and since decades frozen situation isn’t suited at all to day for realizing an up to date academic department.
    Hélas, as I already claimed, it’s a trench battle aiming at reviving a past idealized situation.
    Like its organisation, language used and the local pastoral approach it is all reflecting, since long, past situation. Daring or new solutions except use of PC, Cep telephone isn’t considered seriously, one usually call this extreme conservatism.

    5.The absence of the official recognition of the religious leaderships organs( despite Lausanne); the GDF ( General Directorate for Foundations) and its manifold stumble blocks for all religious organisations are still today subject to serious comment of the EU and most probably the reason why Turkey came recently on the international list of countries to be watched closely on the topic of religious freedom.

    The international community and the E.U. is still very intensively pre occupied with the prevailing legal and non legal harassments, the extra limitations, burdens and unfriendly attitude vis à vis those Non Muslim minorities ( including Alevis) . The Turkish government however, we must acknowledge, has to take into account a general reluctance in the population to change this situation and on top the Guardians of the Republic aren’t very hot on it either.
    How earnestly and with what perseverance the government and local parties and local authorities are effectively striving to change and the mentality of the population and solve practically all legal discussions/problems, limitations, discriminations and the legislation and their application norms can be the only practical yardstick to judge this situation.

    6.As such it seems to me that following issues should be dealt with first of all:

    1. Either strict separation of religious organisations / the state with a financing accordingly European standards or without any subsidising (exception made for the historical building maintenance) like it is in France. In concrete terms for Turkey, based on a strict concept and criteria subsidising of all registered movements, with a proper juridical set up for all accepted religions. A system like Germany can be followed with different sub departments within the Dynia. The religious organisations should however all be subject to financial control of the government and should comply with the basic tenants of the Law and refrain from political action.( all members free in their political rights however)
    2. Provided the common Curriculum is followed all should be possible to open their own private schools, provided under steady control of the Department of education. Theological (in his widest sense) Chairs should be possible to open as well .
    3. The government must deal with all open problems and make a definite settlement within a fixed period, in case this isn’t with common consent of the parties involved an international arbitrage will settle the matter definitely.
    4. The government will no longer block officially the use of Ecumenical title of the Patriarch, a title bestowed on him since centuries already by the international Orthodox community; it should also give a legal entity to the church organisation.
    5. Foreign priests, monks, professors, teachers or other communal religious professions will receive permanent visa whenever they serve under the umbrella and responsibility of the religious authorized organisations.

    6.An interreligious academic department with on top individual chairs financed by the religious communities. The interreligious basic department financed by the government should be realized on the basis of academic freedom like it is customary in Western Europe.
    The basic aim should be to bring an interreligious dialogue and a confrontation with the present to day scientifically knowledge and insights in order to promote dialogue and common sense and understanding. This should also be possible in private universities but then with private funds, under supervision and with financial control by the central authorities. The aim being to attract international renowned guest professors and create an internationally renowned institute for the Muslim/other religion/atheism dialogue and confrontation. This should be realized in basically International Languages to allow an international status and working area.

    7.Turkey with his unique position as a Muslim country with a strict modern concept of separation of state and religion could play a unique role, also as a serious partner for similar initiatives in the “Christian” countries. It would enhance considerably the international status as well.

    8.Is this all leading to a conclusion that little was achieved or that the efforts were too small and limited?
    Not at all, the last couple of years have seen enormous progress within sometimes difficult circumstances. The present government isn’t of course blameless but has realized wonders and dared facing extreme difficult issues and contradicting influences and pressure.
    A general nostalgia to older times is still prevailing however; too many too long are looking at the glorious past. Too long a critical approach open to this past, the present challenges and changes required was and is still lacking.
    A serious insight in one’s own history is lacking on all sides and little effort is done to counter this serious lack of knowledge.
    Remaining in the old trenches is carelessly waiting for his own burial by crumbling institutions and the progress of modern times and knowledge.

    Turkey has of course a very specific and unique situation within the Muslim world and consequently cannot be forced to copy blindly and uncritically Western solutions and practices. Even with an open mind for the opportunities and challenges of to day all involved actors should be given time and credit but also should be under critical follow up and remain responsible and liable vis à vis their “subjects” ; the times when absolute monarchical systems prevailed and a vertical hierarchic with only top down situation and communication and with a flock that lacked information, education and political power are gone since quite many decades.
    Governing an institute or a country is though based on traditional, culturally coloured values, but requires a new and up, to date approach.
    (Recommended reading : “Osman’s Dream” by Caroline Finkel; “Des Racines pour l’Avenir “par Thierry Verhelst)

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