07/23/2009, 00.00
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Despite Europe's request, Ankara continues to waver on Religious Freedom

by NAT da Polis
The head of EU enlargement has said that the accession process of Turkey also depends on the Halki school, an institution for the formation of the clergy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, closed since 1971. The government remains silent, while the debate grows in the media. The real issue is the recognition of the status of the Patriarchate.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Rumours abound in Turkish press over the imminent reopening of the Halki Theological School (see photo), for the formation of theologians and the clergy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, closed suddenly in 1971, after more than 100 years of activity. The issue is being widely discussed in the media, with the mixture of opinions for and against the reopening.

It all began when Oli Rehn, head of EU enlargement, and thus also of Turkey's accession to the EU, in a meeting with journalists in Brussels, June 10 last, said that this process also takes into consideration the reopening of Halki.  He also made known to press, concerns expressed to him by the Holy See regarding the level of religious freedom in Turkey.   Influential journalists, writers and professors, like Baskin Oran, Murat Belge, Ali Birant, Kanlı and Orhan Kemal Cengiz, have come out in favour of the reopening. The latter, in an article in Today's Zaman entitled "Is the Ecumenical Patriarchate waiting for Godot?” describes, as never before, the shameful and persistent behaviour of the Turkish authorities, bent on the complete extinction of  the Ecumenical Patriarchate, through methods of persecution including insidious legislation, even arriving at accusing the Patriarchate because, in his opinion, it left its appeal to the court in Strasbourg too late and is guilty of trusting too much to the periodic promises made by the Turkish authorities.

Voices against the reopening of Halki have been raised, however, by the Istanbul Lawyers Association, a very important institution, during a conference organized after (a coincidence?) Rehn's statement.   Arguments against the reopening and against the Patriarchate far from polite. The legal status of the Patriarchate was challenged, and consequently it’s right to have a school of theology. The chairman of the association, Muammer Aydin, accused the Phanar of despising Turkey and of aiming to establish itself as the Vatican of the East, while a professor at the University of Marmara, Ozel Sibel, having listed a series of norms which, she claims, prohibit the recognition of the Patriarchate and the reopening of Halki - justifiably closed in her opinion - concluded that "no one can impose the reopening of Halki”.   The Turkish government, for its part, has spoken for the first time through Erdogan, who, on the sidelines of the recent expanded G8 summit, responding to questions from journalists on the Halki question, said that he had not received any request on the issue by the parties directly concerned, i.e. the Patriarchate of Constantinople.    

But in order to understand the true intentions of Turkish authorities, regardless of the kind of government in power, the statements of the Minister Egemen Bagis, head of Turkey-EU relations are important.  Bagis remarked the other day: "The reopening of Halki is a domestic issue for Turkey", that is an internal issue for its citizens. One solution, according Bagis, lies in the context of reciprocity with the rights of Muslims (approximately 140,000) who live in the northeast of Greece, because, although Greek citizens, according to Ankara they are all ethnic Turks.  

“In short it’s the same old story," says a senior lecturer in history, a Greek from Istanbul, Dimitri G., one of the last remaining members of the almost non existent Orthodox community in the city. “Every time the issue of Halki arises, particularly during the visits of Heads of State to Ankara, not least the recent visit of Obama,  Ankara, caught unprepared by its interlocutors, raises the question of reciprocity with the Muslim community in Greece, and so it avoids dealing with the issue”.  "But what kind of reciprocity are they speaking about?" continues Dimitri G. "In Greece there is a community of Greek citizens of Muslim religion about 140 thousand people of different ethnic origins: Turkish, Pomak (Slavs converted to Islam) and gypsies, who are flourishing, with clergy and mosques, Islamic schools and cultural activities, according to the dictates of religious freedom. All this funded by the Greek State and also by the EU, because they are nationals of an EU Member State. And rightly so. In Turkey, on the contrary, following the systematic purging of the past years, from 100 thousand souls that existed in 1923 - which according to the Treaty of Lausanne were to be treated as the Muslim minority in Greek Thrace, for the principle of numerical reciprocity,  wanted and ordered by Turkish authorities themselves - we have been reduced to barely a 3 thousand. The historic status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate has never recognized and it must raise funds by its own means. The Mufti in Greece are public employees. And, again, is right. Therefore, any invocation of reciprocity from the Turkish side is unacceptable, because it is they who have deliberately and systematically violated it”.

Father Distheos, head of external relations for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a German citizen, but Greek of Constantinople, very esteemed in the international arena for his perspicacity, said in this regard to AsiaNews: "with all this fuss that has been created in the media regarding the possible reopening of Halki - magisterially orchestrated as is usual with the media in Turkey - there is the risk of obscuring the essence of the fundamental question, which is much more important. Namely that of the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Regarding Halki, the solution is simple: return to the status prior to 1971. It is up to the authorities to restore it”.  As to the statements of Prime Minister Erdogan that they had not received any request from those directly involved Father Dositheos reports that Patriarch Bartholomew on the occasion of courtesy visits made in 2007 both to President Gul and other Turkish authorities, he certainly raised all issues of concern, including that of Halki, and they "simply replied that they would take them into consideration..”.

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