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Exclusive in English: Metropolitan Elpidophoros of Bursa: “Tsipras visit to the Theological School a leap towards its re-opening”

Prof. Dr. Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, Metropolitan of Bursa, recently gave an interview to Ethnos (original article below), which has been translated into English exclusively for The Orthodox World.

The hierarch describes the filial climate between the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Greek Prime Minister who, as he emphasizes, is beloved and popular in the neighbouring country, along with expressing his faith that we are close to the moment Greece and Turkey will soon surpass difficulties and tensions in their relationship.

In the wake of the visit of Alexis Tsipras to Turkey, the Abbot of Halki and Metropolitan of Bursa Elpidophoros describes how Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew literally grabbed the Prime Minister and his wife by the hand and gave them a guided tour of the various premises of the School. He shared with them personal stories and events that he had as a student there. About Mr. Tsipras, he emphasized that he is especially beloved and popular in Turkey, all the while postulating that Greece and Turkey will soon surpass their difficulties and tensions; however, because peace is a difficult “childbirth,” only after it passes through a stage of suffering will it come to fruition.

Your Eminence, we were all witnesses to the first visit of a sitting Greek Prime Minister to the Theological School of Halki. What is your opinion: are we slowly coming to the time that the School will re-open soon?

We are all very happy about Mr. Tsipras’ historic visit. We lived truly touching moments with the Greek Prime Minister approaching, worshipping at the Halki Theological School, taking part in the Divine Liturgy that was presided by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. All of these things happened on a very important day: the feast day of St. Photios the Great, the founder of our monastery. The Prime Minister was toured around the empty classrooms and the library by the Patriarch himself. Together, they planted a tree in the historic garden of the School, in the presence of the representative of the Turkish President, Mr. Erdogan. All these things create, I believe, a psychological and political climate where we can truly begin to speak about a jump forward, walking towards the direction of the re-opening of the School.

There are many in Greece that asked why the opening of the Theological School of Halki and its ability to have a new student body is so important for the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the few Romios (Greeks) left [in Turkey] …

The Theological School of Halki is important because it is not simply for the few Romios (Greeks) left in Constantinople. The Romios of Constantinople have schools to send their children, such as the Patriarchal Grand School, the Zografion High School and the Zappio High School. The School is connected with the ecumenical nature of the Patriarchate. It is not simply confined in the small borders of the Omogenia, of Hellenism and Orthodoxy. It has an international and inter-church radiance; hence, why it is so important. It has always played a bridge role between various confessions, Orthodox Churches, Patriarchates, and various nations. We are certain that it will be a success – if the School does open. The first “crash test” in Constantinople has already been completed. What I mean is that the Ecumenical Patriarch has been able to open various schools on the island of Imvros. In Imvros, all the schools had closed by order of the Turkish government for over fifty years. Recently, all schools were allowed to re-open. Everyone asked which children will enroll. Yet, our Patriarch – with his perseverance – was able to succeed “from scratch” to repatriate families originally from Imvros back to the island. Today, schools of all levels [primary and secondary] are working.

What made the Prime Minister most impressed during his recent trip to Halki? What did he confide in you?

The entire atmosphere of the Theological School and his visit, which began with his attending the Divine Liturgy, psychologically brought the Prime Minister to a state of spirituality. From the moment he lit his candle, you had the feeling that his face shone. The Prime Minister was especially moved when the Ecumenical Patriarch literally grabbed his hand and showed him all over the grounds personally. He shared with him personal stories, incidents from the School that the Patriarch had lived as a student there. All of these created a closeness in their communication and a human emotion in the Prime Minister, who – together with his wife – saw in the Patriarch’s eyes.

In 1971, due to the deterioration of Greek-Turkish relations because of the Cyprus issue, the School “was silenced.” Today, though, tensions between the two countries persist. Do you believe that the climate which has been shaped due to the Greek Prime Minister’s contact with the President of Turkey is enough to bring the coveted result of the re-opening of the School? 

Although the general consensus that is believed is that Greek-Turkish relations are contentious, I personally believe this to be untrue. I believe that we are very close to the phase where Greece and Turkey will be able to surpass these difficulties and tensions. All the prerequisites for this to happen exist. Yet, because peace is truly a difficult “childbirth”, it must be ‘born’ with much heartache and pain. I believe that all these “skirmishes” that are pointed out today are precisely the pain of the figurative childbirth of a peaceful and friendship-filled coexistence between the two nations, which is the prerequisite, the oxygen which the Theological School of Halki will breathe and will re-open. I am optimistic. 

Mr. Tsipras’ visit to Hagia Sophia and to the Theological School of Halki came as a headline in many of the International Mass Media, just as the “New York Times” and “Spiegel”, while all the Turkish Mass Media covered it extensively. The reaction was also quite impressive amongst the Romioi (Greeks) of the City, along with many regular Turkish citizens. Could you convey to us the climate and overall feeling that exists now? 

Along with his personal charisma to communicate with people, Mr. Tsipras is very well loved and popular in Turkey. He is a person that many people would like to meet. Turks are friendly, courteous and hospitable people. I believe that all these things played a role in creating a small “miracle”. The moment the Prime Minister docked and arrived in Halki, all the residents of the island rushed to greet him, embrace him and take pictures with him.  

In your opinion, what does Turkey have to gain in re-opening the Theological School, and how will this affect the Greek Omogenia

The graduates of the Theological School of Halki would enroll when they would begin Middle School, complete High School and the Theological School. Thus, they would be there for seven (7) years. Seven years of the most sensitive, the most important in the forming of their personality, and would live in an environment that they had the chance to get to know Turkey, to love Constantinople, to create friendships. When someone has this type of exposure to a country, it is difficult to become a nationalist and turn against it. He loves the City. Wherever he goes, he asks where the City is – and no citizen of Constantinople exists that hates Turkey. They all love it. The graduates of the School are not simply good theologians. Here, the next Metropolitans and Archbishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for all over the world are trained and graduate. This freedom of communication is needed at all levels – not simply for our priests and members of our Church, but it is important for Hellenism. It is a great privilege to be able to communicate and speak the language of “the other side.” Turkey – like it or not – is our greatest neighbour, with whom we have (or should have) good relations with. To have a good relationship with any neighbour, you have to know him and to live with him. The Theological School of Halki offers this opportunity: to have an experiential coexistence with our greatest neighbour. You only hate the person you don’t know.  

In your most recent speech, you said that Mr. Tsipras was a “brave, political man, who with dynamism is putting into practice difficult decisions.” However, with some of them, like the constitutional revision and the forthcoming bill defining the relations of the State and Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has expressed its objections. After his private meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, will common ground be found on these issues? 

Common ground is always found when there is discussion. Common ground does not mean the petitioner will be justified completely, that all of our side’s points will be agreed upon, even if we believe them to be just. This is the culture of dialogue. Dialogue exists so both sides can find common ground on the issues that concern us. This is our democracy always, and is the greatest contribution of Greek civilization to the worldwide Community. From the moment that the government sits with the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the discussion table, of course a solution will be found. The Ecumenical Throne is known for its versatility in all matters, along with its ability to choose and find solutions, but the government seems determined and ready to sit and discuss with it. It is the most appropriate condition for finding a solution. In terms of the Prime Minister, I believe that – even though some people might disagree – he has touched timely issues that no person dared to discuss until today. Greece has been relieved of its “hunchback” that had burdened it all these years, and of topics that had become very “heavy” and wouldn’t allow it to progress. The fact that the Prime Minister is not afraid to do so and does it shows that he has political courage.


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