Friday, February 22, 2008

Hope for the Ecumenical Patriarchate?

From Today's Zaman comes this interesting story for which we can pray and hope a joyful ending.

Government warm to patriarch’s ‘ecumenical' title

Despite the absence of signs of preparation for a plan to recognize the ecumenical status of the İstanbul-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate at the bureaucratic level, senior members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) haven't ruled out the possibility of amending the country's long-established policy on the controversial issue.

This new stance of the government was first displayed last Wednesday by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Speaking at a joint press conference following his meeting with visiting Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, Erdoğan said the government was working on a solution that would allow the Patriarchate to reopen a Greek Orthodox seminary in Turkey and emphasized that the government has been doing its best to make things easier for the Patriarchate.

"As a matter of fact, the ecumenical issue is an internal issue of the Orthodox Christian world. Turkey's positive attitude [toward the Patriarchate] has been revealed in the elections [of patriarchs] and is obvious," Erdoğan said without elaborating and in an apparent reference to the fact that patriarchs have been elected freely by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

Two days later, more elaborated remarks on the issue came from Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, who is also the country's chief EU negotiator. In response to a question, Babacan initially referred the correspondent to Erdoğan's remarks, describing the issue as "an internal issue" for the Orthodox world.

"Actually, when we look at the issue with a long-term perspective and when we also take Turkey and İstanbul's position into consideration, perhaps it is an issue on which we should develop a new view and an issue which we should not consider taboo," Babacan said.

"Consequently, this issue will absolutely be spoken about and discussed. What matters in the long term is the position of Turkey and İstanbul in the world -- Turkey's power. What makes Turkey stronger or what makes Turkey weaker should be very carefully calculated," he added.

These remarks from Erdoğan and Babacan have already been interpreted as a divergence from Ankara's well-known stance of considering the Patriarchate a domestic issue since it is by law a Turkish institution.

While diplomats speaking with Today's Zaman refrained from interpreting these remarks, a statement by Egemen Bağış, a top foreign policy adviser to Erdoğan, strengthened assertions concerning the possibility of the government bringing in a new perspective on the issue.

"The Patriarchate is not an institution that was just founded yesterday. It is an institution that has been present in these lands throughout the centuries. There is a need for looking at the past and making an analysis of the periods during which the Patriarchate positively or negatively contributed to these lands," Bağış, now in charge of foreign policy affairs in the AK Party, told Today's Zaman.

Ankara does not recognize Patriarch Bartholomew's international role as the spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians worldwide. It rejects his use of the title "ecumenical," or universal, arguing instead that the patriarch is merely the spiritual leader of İstanbul's dwindling Orthodox community.

The Fener Greek Patriarchate in İstanbul dates from the 1,100-year-old Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, today's İstanbul, in 1453. "After making such an analysis, if eventual assessment shows that Turkey's interests lay toward a certain choice, then Turkey should make this choice," Bağış said.

Last week, at the same press conference with Erdoğan, Karamanlis said having the Patriarchate based in Turkey was "an EU passport" for Turkey. Turkey's current position puts it at odds with the EU, with which it is involved in accession negotiations, as both the EU and Washington consider the status of the patriarch a matter of religious freedom.

Similar remarks came from Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who accompanied Karamanlis during the visit which ended on Friday, when she assessed the outcome of Karamanlis' visit.

"I believe that Turkey should become aware that the best ambassador for a European Turkey is İstanbul's Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate. The ecumenical patriarch is a Turkish citizen and he is a fierce supporter of Turkey's EU membership. Turkey should make sure this ecumenical Patriarchate institution is maintained. This means reopening the seminary on the island of Heybeliada, training of new generation priests and accepting religious freedom. I believe that the intention [of the Turkish government] is there. We can find a way through if there is intention," Bakoyannis was quoted as saying in remarks aired on the Web site of the BBC Turkish service on Saturday.

Turkey has also been resisting EU pressure to reopen the Halki seminary on the island of Heybeliada near İstanbul which was closed to new students in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control. The theological school once trained generations of Greek Orthodox leaders, including the current patriarch. The seminary remained open until 1985, when the last five students graduated.

An ethnic Greek but a Turkish citizen, Bartholomew says the dwindling Orthodox community could soon die out in Turkey if the seminary is not reopened.

Babacan, speaking with reporters over the weekend in Davos where he participated in a summit of the World Economic Forum, said the government has been working on reopening the seminary via ongoing studies at the Education Ministry as well as at the Higher Education Board (YÖK), the Hürriyet daily reported yesterday, noting that the minister did not elaborate further.


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