ONE of the most outspoken proponents of Greek-Turkish friendship is also one of the most prominent citizens of Turkey. So it is no surprise that Greece’s recent decision to include the reopening of the Halki theological seminary – the legendary spawning ground of the patriarchate’s great hierarchs and theologians – in the newly upgraded dialogue between the two countries has stirred high hopes in Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, for whom that goal has long been a personal mission.
In an exclusive interview with the Athens News, the highest-ranking leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians calls upon Turkey to live up to its own constitution as well as basic human rights and values in the key areas of religious freedom and minority rights as it undertakes its arduous journey to become a full-fledged member of the European family. Ankara’s half-century campaign to eliminate gradually the Greek minority of Istanbul and decimate the once overwhelmingly Greek population of Imvros has been overwhelmingly successful. It began with the orchestrated anti-Greek riots of September 6-7, 1955, where widespread plundering and looting of Greek businesses and homes in Istanbul established a terrifying chill in the Greek community, over 100,000-strong in the first half of the 20th century and now down to fewer than 4,000.
The mid-1960s also saw an orchestrated and radical demographic alteration of the population of Imvros, once 95% ethnic Greek, contrary to Ankara’s obligations under Article 14 of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Imvros and adjacent Tenedos were to “enjoy a special administrative organisation composed of local elements and furnishing every guarantee for the native non-Muslim population so far as concerns local administration and the protection of persons and property”. Forty years later, Ankara abolished Greek-language education, expropriated for a pittance the lands of the overwhelmingly agricultural Greek population and systematically transferred prison convicts to the island. Bartholomew, an Imvriot by birth, believes something can and should still be done to rectify past injustices.
As for the many prime properties of the Greek community of Istanbul, the government continues to discriminate by arbitrarily dissolving the boards of trustees of the charitable foundations that own them and casting a chill in the now tiny community.
The text of the interview follows:
ATHENS NEWS: The issue of the reopening of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Theological Seminary at Halki has been raised by Greece in the context of the newly upgraded Greek-Turkish dialogue. Why is it so important, over 30 years after the school was shut down by the Turkish state, to reopen Halki?
BARTHOLOMEW: The issue of Halki is an essential one for the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It is not simply a luxury, as some might think, but a matter of necessity for the renewal of the clergy at our ecclesiastical centre, here at the Phanar, of the communities in our city and of the eparchal dioceses of the patriarchal throne abroad. That includes Crete and the Dodecanese islands, western Europe and other parts of the world, where the last graduates of Halki are still actively ministering.
Certainly, after the passing of 31 years, the graduates of Halki – whether they be bishops, clergy of lower rank or lay theologians who are professors – are slowly but surely dwindling, and the patriarchate must have the ability to renew its ranks by training new theologians and clergy who will be the standard bearers of its ecumenical spirit and staff the centre of the Phanar and the eparchies abroad.
Today, more than in the past, we are in need of such enlightened clergy and theologians who will be in a position to pick up on the messages of our times and contribute – with their education and the experiences that they will acquire during the course of their studies under the immediate protection and guidance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate – to the global developments of today, being themselves carriers of the evangelical truths and of the ecumenical spirit that characterises both Orthodoxy and our nation.
ATHENS NEWS: Under what arrangement do you think it might be possible for Halki t o operate again?
BARTHOLOMEW: We want the school to operate again just as it did until 1971. Since it will operate on Turkish soil, there will be some supervision from the [Turkish] education ministry. This does not disturb us in the least, because we have nothing to hide. The school used to be run in a manner that was transparent, far from politics and under the umbrella, protection and financial support of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
We had both clergy and lay professors. So we want to return to that regime, which in no way harms Turkey. On the contrary, Turkey will benefit from the reopening of such a school, because it will demonstrate to the whole world that there is indeed freedom of religion. It will show that the rights of minorities are respected. One will see that just as Muslim Turkish citizens can have their twenty-odd theological schools throughout the country to train those who undertake a religious mission, so too the Christians who live here and have the same citizenship, will be able to educate their clergy.
The students at Halki will have to come from abroad as well, because the Greek community here has shrunk to only a few thousand. So we must have the ability to accept students from abroad, as was done up until 1971. Most of those who will leave here following their graduation – and go to serve in various churches, dioceses and countries of the world – will be carrying the spirit of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. They will be people dedicated to dialogue and democratic principles.
ATHENS NEWS: As a cleric, what do you believe has been the lasting influence from your years as a student at Halki, what is the most valuable thing you gained there?
BARTHOLOMEW: The most valuable thing that Halki offered to its students was the combination of theory and praxis. We had lessons all day. But we also had the matins service in the morning, vespers in the afternoon and liturgies on Sundays and on major holidays. The students would chant and other students who were ordained clergy would perform the liturgy. The school director would preside over the service and bless us. We would deliver sermons and receive training in homiletics. The course in liturgics was basic, because it was a lesson that one experienced first-hand, and not simply taught. This combination of theory and praxis does not exist at a university faculty of theology or at a seminary where the students do not all live together in a communal arrangement, like a family. Liturgical life in Orthodoxy plays a central and essential role. The entire theology of our church is concentrated, is lived and expressed in the divine worship. We had this as a daily exp! erience at Halki.
ATHENS NEWS: As a dedicated supporter of improved Greek-Turkish relations, what do you believe are the possibilities of the newly upgraded dialogue between the two countries leading to an arrangement that protects the property of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek minority of Istanbul?
BARTHOLOMEW: Something can and should be done. In a democratic country, it is under no circumstances permissible to discriminate against a certain segment of the population. According to the constitution of Turkey, there is an equal application of the law and of the rights of citizens. Turkish citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs and of ethnic background and the language they speak, as long as they have the Turkish citizenship, are equal before the law. This equality, however, applies not only to their duties before the state, but also to their rights. This is not what is going on today. There is discrimination against minorities.
With us Greeks who are Orthodox, there is discrimination relating to property rights and educational issues. There is a different status for minority charitable foundations and another for Muslim ones. In a democratic country, there must be equality. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is forbidden from buying a piece of real estate in its name because it lacks the legal status.
ATHENS NEWS: Can the patriarchate fully exploit the property that it does have?
BARTHOLOMEW: No, it cannot, because there is a plethora of restrictions. To be precise, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has title only to the one-time orphanage on the island of Prinkipos. The real estate belongs to the [Greek Orthodox] communities. Each community, or school or charitable institution – like our hospital – are all separate vakoufs [foundations]. They are administered by members of our community who are elected by the entire Greek community. So you have, for example, the vakoufs of the communities of Stavrodromion and of Halki, or of the Baloukli hospital, which possess title to their properties.
Over the years, our Greek community, and especially those who had Greek citizenship, lost very much valuable property. I cannot say what exactly can be done – the two governments will have to sort that out – but an agr eement should be reached in order to rectify the injustices that have been committed at the expense of our community.
ATHENS NEWS: Do you feel there is some hope of rectifying discriminatory measures taken over the years against the Greeks of Imvros?
BARTHOLOMEW: With Imvros the situation is worse. There you had forced expropriations. There were measures like the abolition of Greek-language education. Greek minority schools do not operate. All these measures that were implemented in 1964 – and the same applied to the nearby island of Tenedos – forced the Greek population that was native to the island to take their children and leave. Of course, they left behind whatever agricultural lands were not expropriated by the state. The situation there is tragic. Suffice it to say that out of a Greek community of 7,000-8000, fewer than 300 remain today.
You can draw your own conclusions. Why did they leave? No one abandons their home, livelihood and homeland to start their lives over elsewhere from scratch without a reason. There were many reasons and causes that forced the poor farmers and animal breeders to get up and leave and settle in cities, to which they were not accustomed. These were simple farming folk. But when the state took the land from their hands, they could not survive any longer. I do not know what can be done and how. But what I can say as a simple citizen and a man of the church is that the injustices that were done should be rectified.
ATHENS NEWS: Given the fact that only a few thousand Greeks remain in Istanbul, do you believe it is possible that the requirement that the patriarch and bishops must be Turkish citizens might gradually be lifted?
BARTHOLOMEW: This can be done quickly. Why should it be done gradually? With the grace of God, the patriarchate has historically transcended far greater difficulties than those we face today. It survives, exists, sheds its light and is active throughout the world. We never lose hope however great the difficulties and obstructions that are raised before us may be. We believe in the grace of God, which for about 1,700 years has never abandoned the institution that is the Ecumenical Patriarchate. There were difficult days and moments, and times that were much easier and more pleasant. But the patriarchate always struggles and fights the good fight. We want, in the contemporary circumstances of the 21st century, and living in a country that aspires to become a member of the European family, to see the end of all these restrictions. In that way, the patriarchate as a spiritual and religious institution with a lifespan of many centuries and a civilising activity about th! e globe will be able to fulfil its mission with ease.
From this point of view, we welcome with satisfaction the fact that Greece raised the issue of the Ecumenical Patriarchate within the framework of the new phase of the Greek-Turkish dialogue.
ATHENS NEWS , 22/02/2002 , page: A03
Article code: C12950A031