ISTANBUL // Leaders of Turkey's small Christian community have hailed as historic a meeting with Turkish lawmakers to discuss the country's new constitution, but the visit also highlighted the challenge of securing rights of minorities in this mostly Muslim nation.
"A new Turkey is being born," said Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual leader of the world's estimated 300 million Orthodox Christians, after addressing a parliamentary panel in Ankara on Monday. "For the first time in the era of the republic, a formal invitation like this has been extended to the minorities," the patriarch said, according his spokesman, Father Dositheos.
The parliamentary panel, known as the Committee for Constitutional Agreement, is gathering views from all sectors of Turkish society in preparation for writing a new constitution, which is due for completion by the end of the year. The current constitution was written under military rule in 1982.
The appearances of Bartholomew I and representatives of Turkey's Syriac Orthodox Christians at a parliamentary hearing this week marked the first time that Christian groups were officially consulted in such a major political project in Turkey. A Jewish group met the lawmakers in December. One political scientist said the significance of their testimonies was difficult to exaggerate.
"It is a matter of political symbolism," said Ioannis N Grigoriadis, who teaches at Bilkent University in Ankara. "It is very, very important," he said in a telephone interview with The National.
But the remarks of Bartholomew I was also a reminder of one of thorniest problems facing the committee: how to safeguard the rights of religious minorities.
In his 45-minute appearance before the committee, the patriarch renewed his call for the reopening of a Greek Orthodox seminary on Heybeliada, an island near Istanbul. The church has been unable to train new priests and bishops since the seminary was closed in 1971.
Bartholomew I, who was born on the northern Aegean island of Gokceada, a centre of the small Greek community in Turkey, is a graduate of the Heybeliada seminary. After meeting the lawmakers in Ankara, the patriarch said he was "leaving with hope". He submitted an 18-page list of demands of the Orthodox Christian community to committee members.
Turkey, a country with a 99 per cent Muslim population, is a secular republic that officially grants equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of their religion. Still, Christians and Jews say they face problems in educating their clergy, protecting property rights and getting government jobs.
In his meeting with the committee, Bartholomew I noted that he was required to arrange his contacts with Turkish officials through the country's foreign ministry, even though he was a Turkish citizen. "We do not want to be second-class citizens," he said.
The Turkish state does not recognise Bartholomew I's role as Ecumenical Patriarch because of fears that the Orthodox Church could try to establish its own version of the Vatican on Turkish soil. Turkish authorities recognise him only as the leader of the small community of about 3,000 to 5,000 Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey.
About 100,000 Christians and 30,000 Jews live in Turkey, a country of 75 million people. Only Jews, Armenians and Greek Orthodox Christians are officially recognised as religious minorities under a 1923 treaty, while groups, such as the roughly 10,000 Syriac Orthodox Christians, whose traditional home is the region around Mardin near the Syrian border, do not have an official status as a church.
At the meeting in Ankara on Monday, Syriac Christians asked for formal recognition as a minority, said Rudi Sumer, a Syriac lawyer who represented the group at the hearing. Mr Sumer told The National by telephone that Syriacs were calling for more cultural rights and for Syriac Orthodox clerics to be paid by the state, just as Turkey's imams are.
"We hope that our views are heard, but we have to wait for the outcome to be sure," Mr Sumer said.
Since coming to power in late 2002, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has widened minority rights, and it recently started a process of returning confiscated real estate to non-Muslim groups. Granting more rights to religious minorities has been one of the main demands of the European Union, which Turkey wants to join.
Mr Grigoriadis said the Turkish government had undertaken "many positive steps" to improve the situation of non-Muslims.
"Until a relatively short time ago, the patriarchate was ignored by Ankara, and now the patriarch is invited by parliament."