Christians in Turkey

Wider Pattern of Discrimination

The European Union is expressing growing concern over the treatment of Turkey's Christian minority. A recent EU report on minorities in Turkey raised questions regarding Turkey's treatment of its Christian minority. Dorian Jones reports

The ancient seminary of Halki, belonging to the Orthodox church in Istanbul, has now become a focal point regarding Turkey's Christians. It was closed in 1971 by the Turkish government under a law requiring state control of all higher education institutes involved in religious training. It leaves the church without a center for clerical training in what was once the ancient Byzantine capital.

A ferry carries passengers from Istanbul to the island of Heybeli – home to the former Theological School of Halki. Time here seems to have stood still – not only at the school, which was shut down in 1971, but all over the island. Cars are banned. The only way to reach the school from the wharf is by horse-drawn cart.

The Orthodox church in the diaspora

Perched on the top of the island, the school dates back to 1844. For more than a hundred years, it was where many high-ranking church officials got their training. And although it closed almost 35 years ago, the school is still in pristine condition. Father Dorotheos is one of those responsible for its upkeep.

"When the school was at its height there were never more than 120 students here. There were very few students, good professors so that they could have an excellent education."

He is used to the school now being empty, Dorotheos says.

The school's closure has meant that the Orthodox Church has had to turn to institutions outside of Turkey to provide its leaders.

Refusal of the church's status

The patriarchate in Istanbul is a focal point for Turkey's Orthodox Christians. It's also the headquarters for the Orthodox Church and its 250 million followers – as it has been for centuries. But the Turkish state refuses to recognise the church's status and insists all clergy are Turkish citizens.

With the seminary out of action, Archbishop Meliton of the patriarchate says his religious community is being slowly strangled.

"Now we have only a few clergymen. We have about 16 bishops - nine of them are 75 – and the others middle-aged, 65, 66. After that we have only four or five clergy who has Turkish nationality. We will face a very serious problem for the life of the patriarchate. We wrote a memorandum, to prime minister, minister foreign affairs, and minister of internal affairs. But there is no dialogue between patriarchate and Turkish authorities."

Plans of reopening the school

So the orthodox community is now looking to the Europe Union for support.

At a recent EU conference organised by the European Parliament's Christian democratic parties, Archbishop Meliton spoke about the school. Wilfred Martens is head of the Christian Democrats in the European Parliament. He sees the issue of the school as crucial.

"This is important on the content but also extremely important as a sort of symbol," Mertens explains. "If the school could be reopened that is a positive signal that something fundamental changed in Turkey. I have contacts with this government of Mr. Erdogan to change things and to accept the fundamental conditions to become a member of the European union. Religious freedom is a fundamental right."

But the EU isn't only concerned about the reopening of the school. Over the years, the Turkish authorities have confiscated thousands of Christian properties belonging to churches and hospitals. Fresh disputes emerge every month.

Until recently, all churches and foundations were banned from receiving donations in the form of property, after a court ruled they posed a threat to Turkish society. To get around this, many properties were registered under the names of Saints and Biblical figures. But still, many properties have been seized by the state.

The current government has revised the law, but problems persist.

In Istanbul's main high street, the sound of church bells was once as common as the call to prayer. There is one area in Istanbul that used to be home to hundreds of thousands of Christians – mostly Greek and Armenian Turks. The building at Number 157 used to belong to a Hospital Foundation run by Armenian Christians. It was seized in 1996 after a court ruled the property could not be left to the hospital.

"I feel like a foreigner in this country"

Over tea, a foundation member said that they're taking their case to the European Court. He claims the property seizures are just part of a wider pattern of discrimination against Christians in Turkey.

"When these things happen I feel a foreigner in this country. I have done my military service, my father did his and my grand father. We have all served our country but we treated as outsiders, foreigners. I wish I could be treated the same as Turkish Muslims, and that my son could become a senior member of the army, or the police or the fire service or civil servant but he will never be allowed to become one of these because of who we are."

At an Armenian culture centre young and old sing and dance. Here there is optimism that pressure from the EU has led to the government introducing reforms aimed at ending discrimination.

A process which will continue as Turkey takes further steps towards EU membership. But there is a strong feeling the most important change is still to come that of the mentality, that see Christians as outsiders.

Dorian Jones


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