Turkey's Greek Christian priests become pawns in political row

Ankara links reopening of orthodox seminary near Istanbul to better rights for Turkish minority in Greece.

ISTANBUL // In the 1,700 years since it was founded on the shores of the Bosphorus, the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Istanbul has survived many crises and challenges. Now, the leading institution of Greek Orthodox Christianity is becoming a pawn in a row between Turkey and Greece.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has linked possible legal improvements for the patriarchate to Greece taking similar steps for the Turkish minority on Greek soil. In an interview published this week in Kriter, a magazine specialising in Turkish-European relations, Mr Erdogan said his government continued to work for the reopening of a Greek Orthodox seminary near Istanbul that has been closed since the early 1970s. The issue is seen as a question of religious freedom by the European Union, which Turkey wants to join.

Without the school on the island of Heybeliada, called Halki in Greek, the Orthodox clergy in Istanbul are in danger of dying out. Although there are only a few thousand Greeks left in the city that was once the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire, the patriarchate, which dates back to the fourth century, has remained the spiritual centre of the Orthodox church worldwide. Bartholomew I, the current patriarch, is the spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians.

Mr Erdogan's government has said it is studying ways to reactivate the Halki school, and there have been unconfirmed reports that the school would be opened in the first half of this year. But in the Kriter interview, the prime minister said the seminary could only be reopened if the government in Athens introduced changes benefiting the ethnic Turkish community in north-eastern Greece, a region bordering the north-western part of Turkey, called Thrace.

"The demands of our Turkish minority in western Thrace should be looked at by the Greek government," Mr Erdogan told the magazine. "Athens has to tackle those issues at the same time and find solutions to problems of the [Turkish] clergy, of leadership, of unemployment and of minority associations." Like Greek Christians in Istanbul, ethnic Turks in north-eastern Greece were exempt from a population exchange between the two countries in the 1920s. Today, the Greek Christians of Istanbul are Turkish citizens, and the Turks of western Thrace have Greek passports.

Representatives of Greece's Turkish minority of around 100,000 people have been demanding more rights from the government in Athens for years. Among other things, they have been calling for the right to elect their own religious leaders. Some of their demands, such as a request for official recognition of Turkish associations, mirror those of Christians in Turkey. By linking the future of the Greek seminary to the fate of ethnic Turks in Greece, Mr Erdogan has adopted a position taken by Turkish nationalists. Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, agreed with Mr Erdogan, telling the CNN-Turk news channel that Turkey could not close its eyes to the problems of ethnic Turks in Greece. Given the conditions for the Turkish minority in the neighbouring country, "you can get into a situation where you are not able to do the things you really want to do" for ethnic Greeks in Turkey, the president said.

That position has been met with some criticism. Abdulhadim Dede, an ethnic Turkish journalist in Greece, told the internet news portal Bianet that he rejected the connection made by Mr Erdogan. "I feel like I am being used," Mr Dede said. What ethnic Turks in Greece needed was not a dialogue with Turkey, but with the government of their own country. "The situation of non-Muslim minorities in Turkey is the same."

Even before Mr Erdogan's interview was published, the patriarch Bartholomew also told Turkish media that it was wrong to establish a link between the two issues. He agreed with Mr Erdogan in that there should be more mosques in Athens, the patriarch said. "But why do we have to pay the price for mistakes or deficits over there?" he asked. "We are Turkish citizens and we want our rights as citizens. We pay taxes, we do our military service, we vote in elections."

Mr Erdogan's remarks on the seminary followed a recent row between his government and Bartholomew. The patriarch told US media that he felt "crucified" by restrictions on the Christian minority in Turkey and like a "second-class citizen". Mr Erdogan's government strongly rejected the patriarch's criticism. There has been no official reaction from the Greek government to Mr Erdogan's remarks on the Halki seminary and the ethnic Turks in Greece. The patriarchate did not respond to requests for a comment.

Last November, in a letter to George Papandreou, his Greek counterpart, Mr Erdogan proposed new efforts to solve outstanding issues between the two countries. Mr Papandreou visited Turkey after his election victory last year, and two Turkish ministers travelled to Athens in recent months. But there have been no concrete agreements between the two countries so far. tseibert@thenational.ae