The Orthodox Christian Church in Turkey

Caught in the Crossfire between Secularists and Islamists

One of the EU's key demands of Turkey is the re-opening of the Orthodox Church's theological school – because otherwise the ancient Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople will soon be history. Susanne Güsten reports

Turkey has come a long way on the road to democracy in recent years. Motivated by its desire to join the European Union, the country has abolished the death penalty, passed dozens of democratic reforms and improved its human rights record. But some problems have been harder to solve than others.

Freedom of religion and minority rights are two key issues that Turkey has yet to resolve before it begins membership talks with the European Union later this year. A case in point is the fate of the Orthodox Church, which has its historical roots and its spiritual centre in what is now modern Turkey.

The Patriarch of Constantinople, who resides in Istanbul, is the spiritual leader of some 330 million Orthodox Christians around the world – but in his own country his faith is dying out, because the Turkish state will not permit the Patriarchate to train new priests.

One of the European Union's key demands of Turkey is the re-opening of the Orthodox Church's theological school, which was shut down some 35 years ago and remains closed to this day.

The Orthodox Church's Theological School of Halki

Istanbul's ferry terminal at dawn. The day's first ferry to the islands in the Marmara Sea is about to cast off. Boarding a ferry to the islands is the only way to reach the Orthodox Church's Theological School of Halki, the traditional place of training for clergy to staff the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinopel. While the Patriarchate remains here in Istanbul, as former Constantinople is called today, the Theological School is located on the island of Heybeli, about an hour's ride off the shores of Istanbul in the Marmara Sea.

The ferry is crammed full of Turkish holiday-makers heading out for a picnic on the islands, but not a single orthodox seminarist is on board. No priests have been trained at Halki for almost 35 years – the school has been closed since 1971, when the Turkish government had it shut down.

The only Orthodox clergyman aboard is Father Dositeos Anagnostopoulos, an aide to the Patriarch of Constantinople, on his way to visit the closed seminary for the day. Father Dositeos is one of the very few remaining Greek Orthodox Christians in Istanbul, but he remembers better days:

"Nobody leaves his homeland for fun"

"When I graduated from high school in 1960, about 120.000 Greeks were living in Istanbul. Now, in the year 2005, about 2000 remain. Don't let them tell you all these people left just for fun, nobody leaves his homeland for fun."

Several waves of anti-Greek riots and disturbances in the 50s, 60s and 70s drove off most of those Greeks who had remained in Istanbul after the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s. Their culture has all but vanished from Asia Minor and now their Church seems set to go the same way.

Father Dositeos, for example, has had no formal training as a priest, because the Halki school is closed and the church has no other seminary. Patriarch Bartholomew I recently ordained him priest in spite of his lack of training – that's how desperate the Church is these days.

If Halki cannot be re-opened very soon, the orthodox faith will become extinct in its historical homeland.

Muslim civil servants running a Christian Orthodox seminary?

During the crossing to Halki, Pater Anagnostopoulos tries to explain the conflict between the Orthodox Church and the Turkish state, which closed down all private institutes of higher learning in 1971. The Orthodox Church was faced with a choice of closing the seminary or handing it over to the Turkish state, which would have meant leaving the training of orthodox priests in the hands of civil servants – and Muslim civil servants to boot.

The seminary was duly closed and remains so to this day. Even though the ban on private universities was lifted long ago, the Turkish state continues to this day to demand complete control over religious education – including that of orthodox Christian priests, as Pater Dositeus Anagnostopoulos explains:

"This is what they tell us: If you want a theological school, got to the University of Instanbul and open a department of theology there, which Orthodox Christians and Muslims and anybody can attend. Well that's fine, but that's an academic education, what we need is a training facility for priests. So they ask us, why does it have to be Halki? And we say: Because it's been there for 150 years, why should it go anywhere else?"

Haliki – a fairy-tale castle with a spell

Halki is not going anywhere, that much becomes clear as the island of Heybeli slips into sight on the horizon and gradually grows larger as the ship draws near. The monastery, which dates from the 9th century, is perched atop the highest hill on the island, its ancient walls rising above the tree-tops of the forest surrounding it. Like a castle in a fairy-tale, Halki is doomed to sleep until the spell is broken.

The ferry makes only a brief stop at the sleepy island and quickly departs for the larger islands in a clatter of anchor chains, leaving just a handful of passengers on the jetty at Heybeli, among them Pater Anagnostopoulos.

A horse-drawn cart is required to continue the journey to the seminary, as there are no cars on Heybeli Island. A pair of rubber-shod horses draws the carriage up the hill at a sharp trot, slowing to a walk as the incline becomes ever steeper and the turns in the narrow road grow ever sharper.

At last the coachman pulls his team up outside the walls surrounding Halki, the Monastery and Theological School of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The smell of incense wafts from the church into the well-kept gardens of the school, where the lawn is freshly mown, the flower-beds are neatly weeded and the paths are swept clean.

Halki could re-open tomorrow

Inside the seminary building, the smell of floor polish is strong. Old-fashioned desks are neatly lined up in a dozen classrooms, the scribbles and carvings of orthodox seminarists long since departed still visible on their surfaces. The blackboards are wiped, the rooms are aired and all is ready for those priests-in-training the Church so badly needs these days.

The school has daily been kept ready to continue its work for almost 35 years. If only permission was given, Halki could re-open tomorrow.

But the voices of the monks continue to echo through empty rooms in Halki. Only the bishop of Halki himself remains here permanently. Three orthodox monks from Greece and the United States are currently here on Turkish tourist visas to keep him company and look after the priceless library.

Every three months they must leave and re-enter the country to preserve their tourist status, for Turkey will not recognize them as anything else.

Will Halki ever be able to re-open? Will orthodox priests ever again be trained in the seminary which has produced some of the most illustrious leaders of orthodox Christendom? Speaking inside the monastery church, among the golden reflections of icons and candles, Pater Dositeus Anagnostopoulos gives vent to his frustration:

The Turkish state has a problem with religion in general

"We've never had a written answer from the Turkish government. All we hear from them are polite words, no criticism or abuse, mind you, but neither a promise nor an outright rejection – nothing definite at all."

And the reason for that is the fact that the Turkish state has a problem with religion – not so much with that of the few remaining Christians, but mostly with Islam – the faith of the vast majority of its citizens. If the Orthodox Church were to have the right to train its own clergy and to maintain its own seminary, the same rights would have to be granted to Muslim brotherhoods and sects – and that is something the fiercely secular Turkish state wants to prevent at all cost.

Holger Nollmann, vicar of the protestant German community of Istanbul and a frequent visitor to Halki, has been monitoring the debate for years. Strolling through the monastery grounds, Nollmann points out that the Turkish state would put itself in a difficult position if it were to allow Halki to re-open:

"It would hardly be feasible in that case to refuse Muslim groups or fundamentalist Muslim groups the right to open similar schools for themselves. So it would be very probable, if the orthodox school were opened, that other religious or ideological groups would open their own schools – and that simply cannot be in the interest of this Turkish state."

More freedom for Christianity = more freedom for Islam

The recent advent of a moderately Islamic political party to power has not effected a change in this conflict – the effect has been rather the opposite. While Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim, would be only too happy to grant greater religious freedom to all and to put an end to the iron grip of state control over religion, this matter is out of his hands – as Pater Dositeus Anagonstopoulos explains:

"The army doesn't want that, the army wants a purely secular, Kemalist state. Kemalism, does not forbid religion, but it controls religion and suppresses it. The army does not want the country to go back to being a Muslim country, they won't stand for it. Now, if our school were reopened and if the Christians were granted more religious freedom, the same freedoms would have to apply to Islam. We Christians are, as regards this problem, victims of the present situation in Turkey."

So in fact, the Orthodox Church is not itself the target of religious oppression by the Turkish state. The oldest Christian church in the world just happens to be caught in the crossfire between secularists and Islamists, between Kemalists and liberals, between military and civilian rulers that define the present political struggle power over Turkey's future.

While the parties to this conflict have plenty of manpower and time to slug it out, the ancient Orthodox Church has neither of those luxuries. Half its remaining clergymen are older than 70 or even 80 years. If new priests cannot graduate from Halki within a very few years, it will be too late – and the ancient Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople will be history.

Susanne Güsten


Website Ecumenical Patriarchat

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