Turkish journalist: ‘We are crucifying the patriarch’

By Mehmet Ali Birand in Hurriyet (Monday, December 21, 2009):

It might be true, we are crucifying the patriarch

I don’t agree with Foreign Minister Davutoğlu. The patriarch is right. The state, with its ignorance of a Turkish institution for 38 years, has not been able to keep its word and has crucified the patriarch.

No offense, but the culture and custom of crucifying exists in our state. It did not only apply it to the Patriarchate but also to its citizens and institutions, and it continues to do so.

For those who don’t know, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew is a leader who is followed by millions of Orthodox people from all over the world and one who holds the international status of a patriarch in the heart of a Muslim country. And we, who are supposed to be proud of this, underestimate it by calling him a patriarch based in Istanbul’s Fener neighborhood.

As if we are asked or allowed to make a decision. Even if we don’t accept his ecumenical presence, Bartholomew is one of the most important religious functionaries living in Istanbul. His international influence is enormous and he can immediately reach any person he wishes to reach. He is a leader for who millions of people get in line to kiss his hand.

This country has lived with conspiracy theories for many years. The Patriarchate has been viewed as an institution that sneaks plans about dividing Turkey so Greece can invade the country anew. (!) When his ecumenical presence is accepted, people thought the Christians would create a Vatican in Turkey. This absurd theory was supported by the state, military and some nationalists.

AKP’s promises…

The AKP was the first to object. After Tayyip Erdoğan came to power, relations with the patriarch went back to normal. He often met with the patriarch and promised to work – and actually did work – on a solution for the Halki seminary, which persists since 1971.

Bartholomew’s problem with Turkey, and maybe the sole problem, is not being able to open up the Halki seminary. Because this seminary cannot be reopened, no religious functionary could be placed in Istanbul for 38 years now. The patriarch wastes away with each passing day. Turkey is forced to import external religious functionaries for the 15 to 20 churches in the country. The danger arises of leaving the Patriarchate in the hands of externally educated Orthodox religious functionaries.

Please be informed that the Sen Sinod, which is considered the parliament of the Patriarch, is in danger. It will not be able to gather after a while because the number of religious functionaries who are Turkish citizens is decreasing progressively. To bridge the gap, we import religious functionaries from Greece and engage in deception to naturalize them in Turkey.

Besides, the Halki seminary was closed in 1971 only to link other religious colleges to universities, even though it was not a private college. Other colleges that were closed at that time were linked to universities and continued on their path, but the Halki seminary never reopened. Despite the Treaty of Lausanne and despite it being a minority right, we ignored our own signature. It could have been reopened as a religious occupation school connected to the Ministry of National Education. We did not reopen it.

For years, we waited for a response from Greece. We kept the Halki seminary hostage, trying to force the acceptance of western Thrace muftis being elected by the people.

This is our shame in respect to the patriarch. A great injustice. A great despotism. This is the logic of interchange. And Erdoğan was the one to oppose this. I have witnessed it.

The AKP’s Education Minister Hüseyin Çelik in his innumerous statements said, “Leave it up to me and I’ll reopen it in 24 hours.” He repeated persistently that this is a great injustice done to the patriarch.

This logic won’t lead us anywhere

So why can’t it be reopened? All pious forces resist. And now we hear the same reasons: “There is no mosque in Athens… western Thrace muftis are appointed by the state… why should we in this case please the patriarch?”

The Patriarchate is our own institution. And the patriarch is a Turkish citizen. The Halki seminary will educate Turkish citizens and be wholly under the supervision of the Ministry of Education.

Those in western Thrace are all Greek citizens. And as citizens of Europe, they are in a position to pursue their rights. The patriarch asks, “Is it my fault that there are no mosques in Athens or that muftis are appointed by the Greek state?”

Now that’s where the interchange logic surfaces. The logic is, they pressure me and I’ll pressure them. Whereas the one pressured is one of us, our own citizen, and the Patriarchate belongs to us. Instead of taking good care, we push it around. Bartholomew is a well-respected and cautious person.

He always took great care to get along with the administration, always praising Turkey abroad and acting like a Turkish citizen. He never ever used the immense religious power on hand.

Can we expect them to understand us?

If today he says in daily Habertürk and on the American CBS television, “Enough now. I feel crucified… I have no choice but to take this matter to the European Court of Human Rights,” then we need to pay attention.

The patriarch calls out to Ankara and to the prime minister, who he perceives as his friend. “Please save me,” he says. He wants us to keep our word, which was given years ago. Turkey won’t gain from crucifying the patriarch. On the contrary, we’d be humiliated. But if it did the opposite and reopened the Halki seminary, it would provide Ankara with unbelievable prestige, which doesn’t cost much. And those who criticize Turkey before Europe would shut up. Turkey would claim its minorities, and understand its Christian citizens.

If we don’t understand other religions, how can we expect Europe to understand Islam? I am confused. How come the prime minister cannot keep his word? Cannot overcome pious circles? Cannot show the same amount of courage he showed in the Kurdish and Armenian initiatives? Let’s finally listen to Bartholomew. Otherwise, let’s not get angry if he goes before the European Court of Human Rights.


  1. George Michalopulos :

    Did anybody notice that this journalist –well-meaning and all–defends the EP who is “our citizen” and the patriarchates which is “our institution”? So it’s come to this? Well-intentioned supporters are helping this patriarchate while acknowledging its inherent Turkishness?

    BTW, I don’t fault this journalist. I think he’s a good man who is ashamed at the way that his government is behaving and for that I applaud him. But whether he realizes it or not, he is not doing us any favors.

  2. The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights has ruled is a violation of religious and education freedom to have crucifix hangs on the walls of Italian public schools.

    I get really confused when I hear about a Christian leader going before the European Court of Human Rights.

  3. Nat da Polis in AsiaNews.it (Dec. 22):

    Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu responded immediately. He said, “I hope this is just a slip of the tongue. It is a very unfortunate statement. We do not deserve it. Crucifixion has never been a part of our history. I cannot see such a comparison coming from such a levelheaded person. I hope they were said by mistake.”

    In reality, history shows that 19 Orthodox patriarchs were hanged, imprisoned or sent into exile by Turkish authorities. Yet, for Davutoglu, the Turkish nation was built on religious intolerance, and the Turkish Republic is a secular state; a democracy based on the rule of law that does not judge its citizens based on their religious affiliation, a place where every citizen is equal.

    [ … ]

    Even in Istanbul’s diplomatic circles, such remarks have raised eyebrows because several times in the past Bartholomew said that he believed in Erdogan’s goodwill. Still diplomatic sources acknowldge that Turkey’s situation is very complex and it is hard to understand whether what officials say expresses a desire for real change or not.

    For his part, Istanbul-born historian E. Milas notes that whilst the authorities do not recognise the Ecumenical Patriarchate, they do recognise the so-called Turkish Orthodox Church, which was set up by the Turkish state, whose membership is so small it could not fill up a minibus even if it tried, but whose offices (confiscated from the Greek Orthodox Church) served as the headquarters for the ultra-nationalist Kemalist group Ergenekon.

    Even well-known writer A. Aslan said that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, or the priest Bartholomew as Turkish authorities continue to call him, is greeted by everyone with his historical title of patriarch, “whilst we continue to stick our heads in the sand, thinking that we can solve our problems with the Kurds and the Alevi and forget everything about we have done to the Armenians.”

    As an apostolic nuncio with a long experience in the Middle East said, things in Turkey hardly change. Even when there is some movement, change is too often nipped in the bud.

  4. Burak Bekdil in “The road to towers, minarets and wisdom” (Hurriyet, Dec. 23):

    … I was amused to read the columns of most Islamic “free thinkers” in reaction to the Swiss ban. Words like Nazism, Swiss racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia were in boring abundance.

    Racist Swiss? A country where “foreign” immigrants constitute a quarter of the population? Could the Turks really cohabit peacefully with 18 million foreigners in their country? Could they really cohabit peacefully with 4 million non-Muslims? How many Swiss journalists have been murdered by “pure-blood” Swiss because they have non-Swiss DNA?

    Fine. Let’s forget the too-visible and disturbing asymmetry and, for a moment, subscribe to Schroeder’s wisdom and admit that failings in Muslim lands cannot be an excuse for failings in Christian lands. But does that mean we should not criticize failings?

    Yes, we wholeheartedly praise the government in Ankara for eventually – albeit slowly – paving the way for the opening of Akdamar, an Armenian church in Van, for services next fall. But where in Schroeder’s epic optimism could we locate the almost nationally uniform uproar over the words of the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians?

    It is totally futile to put Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s “we-are-being-crucified-daily” plea under the magnifying glass. Focusing on the wording and its various connotations in different languages will only cause distraction from the big issue.

    The heart of the matter should not be which words the patriarch chose to express himself; it should be why he, a Turkish citizen, feels the need to complain that “we are treated as second-class citizens,” and why he feels “crucified under a government that would like to see [his] nearly 2,000-year-old Patriarchate die out.”

  5. “Being crucified in Turkey” by Bulent Kenes (Today’s Zaman, Dec. 23):

    Some nationalist circles have been unnerved by the patriarch and also CBS’ presentation of the news piece. And there are certainly discomfiting segments in the program such as those suggesting that Anatolia actually belongs to the Christians. But isn’t it true that Christian property has been confiscated in this country? Isn’t it a reality that we have to face up to the fact that churches, monasteries and schools have been shut down here? Aren’t the monasteries and clerical schools that were shut down in the 1970s still closed? How possible is it, really, to say that in a nation where the skewed understanding of secularism reigns, that the Christian minority has no problems when it even creates difficulties for quite a few religious Muslims, forcing some to go to European nations for their education?

    The news piece in question says: “Fast forward a few centuries, and it’s hard to find Christians in İstanbul. One local church ‘60 Minutes’ visited holds 500 people, but during its Sunday service, its pews were practically empty. It was the same everywhere we went. At the turn of the last century there were nearly 2 million Orthodox Christians in Turkey; 1.5 million were expelled in 1923 and another 150,000 left after violent anti-Christian riots in İstanbul in 1955. Today, in all of Turkey, there are only 4,000 Orthodox Christians left.” What part of this is a lie? What part of this is wrong?

  6. “Non-Muslims and Muslims need to unite for a freedom of religion act (3)” by Orhan Kemal Cengiz (Today’s Zaman, Dec. 23):

    The secular establishment in Turkey has deceived everyone by playing on well-known fears. When non-Muslims demand their rights, the establishment says that if they give some rights to them, these rights might be used and abused by “fundamentalist Islamists.” When Sunni Muslims demanded some rights, they were denied with similar arguments — that the rights they demanded might be used by Alevis and non-Muslims.

    Even if we overcome these very deep-rooted fear-mongering policies by the state’s secular establishment, it is quite difficult to solve religious congregations’ problems with the existing legal tools.

    New legal instruments and structures should be created. A new religious institution should be introduced by law to regulate the relations of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and this institution’s framework should be compatible with its ecumenical nature. New legal regulations should be introduced for the upper-level religious institutions of religious minorities. New legal regulations are needed for the recognition of religious congregations and their institutions. Churches, synagogues and mosques should be given separate and distinctive legal capacities. It is obvious that the Turkish legal system, which only stipulates foundations, associations and corporations as legal persons or structures, is not suitable for the recognition of churches, mosques and synagogues.

  7. George Michalopulos :

    John, I applaud the goodwill of these Turkish intellectuals and journalists, yet the problem remains and it is two-fold: 1) the Islamic nations will never accede to a European-style tolerance for minorities within their lands, and 2) the dhimmi churches of the Orthodox world will never see evangelical horizon beyond the walls of their ethnic ghettos. They have sunk in a weird way into a type of Talmudic Rabbinicsm, which caused Judaism to shrink into a racialist/tribalist henotheism after the Second Jewish War. (Before that, Judaism was a true monotheism with universalist aspirations, not unlike Christianity or Islam.)

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