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.
“If Patriarch Bartholomew has complaints about this issue, he can convey them to the relevant authorities who will do whatever is necessary,” the foreign minister said. “We cannot accept comparisons that we do not deserve.”
Bartholomew reacted to the minister’s comments in an interview with the Turkish-language news agency Haberturk in which he said that as a citizen of “this country [i.e. Turkey, where he did two years of military service) he wants to be treated as an equal and not as a second class citizen.
The Patriarch said he raised several times in writing the issue of the Theological Seminary in Halki and other matters with Prime Minister Erdogan. The answer he got was the same: reciprocity. For Halki to reopened, the Greeks have to allow a mosque in Athens. In reality, the Greek capital already has an Islamic Centre with an adjacent place of worship.
“We are not against a mosque in Athens,” Bartholomew said. “But they are making us pay for something which we are not responsible for.”
The Theological Seminary in Halki was run in accordance with the regulations of the Education Ministry until it was shut down in 1971, Bartholomew said. It had a high school and a college.
“We have asked for permission to close the school because we have not had any students for years and still have a deputy school principal who gets paid for a place that stands empty. Instead, we applied to reopen the college, which the authorities closed.”
“Schools that belong to other minorities are in the same situation. Even the Education Ministry says that there is no legal obstacle to our request, but falls back on the notion of reciprocity with regard to the Muslim minority in Greek Thrace,” the Patriarch said.
However, the two situations are very different. There are only 3,000 Greek Orthodox are left in Istanbul compared to 150,000 Muslims in Greek Thrace (who have 400 mosques and three Qur‘anic schools).
That was not the case in the recent past when Istanbul was home to 130,000 Orthodox Christians.
Some claim they left of their own accord, but no one leaves if they have a business or a job. Instead, those who left fled because of the “incidents” of September 1955 (when Greek property was destroyed), real estate taxes (targeting minorities), forced exile in Aşkale, the Cyprus issue, and more. For this reason, we feel let down, the Patriarch said, and we shall take all legal steps at our disposal.
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.
Perhaps there is some hope in younger Turks, who have travelled abroad and seen the world, and who might make a difference in a society that is in transition.