x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Turkey aims to reopen old seminary

Turkey hopes that the proposed reopening of a Greek seminary could help it achieve its objective of joining the European Union

ISTANBUL // Almost 40 years after it closed down its only training school for Greek Orthodox priests, Turkey is moving closer to reopening the seminary, a step that would remove a high-profile obstacle on the country's march towards membership in the European Union, statements of two senior government ministers in Ankara suggest. The fate of the seminary on the island of Heybeliada, or Halki in Greek, in the Sea of Marmara close to Istanbul, has become a symbol for the state of religious freedom in Turkey. US President Barack Obama, during a visit to Turkey in April, joined demands by European officials that Ankara reopen the school, which has been closed since 1971. Because there is no other institution in Turkey that trains Greek Orthodox priests, the clergy in what used to be Byzantium is in danger of dying out.

"My own inclination as well as my general impression are that the school will be opened," Ertugrul Gunay, the culture and tourism minister and a leading reformer in the cabinet, told the news channel Kanal 24 last weekend, adding that there was "no political problem" with that decision. "With the opening of the school, we strengthen ourselves and at the same time render a service to our own citizens on the way towards the EU," the minister told NTV, another news channel.

Egemen Bagis, the minister in charge of EU affairs, told NTV that he also was in favour of opening the seminary. "It is a human rights issue," he said in reference to Turkey's tiny Greek minority. "If our own citizens - a group of less than 3,000 people - have problems fulfilling their religious duties, we have to solve this." But the minister said that if the Heybeliada school reopens, Greece should at the same time widen the rights of its own Turkish minority.

Such reciprocal steps would make it easier for the Turkish government to overcome domestic resistance of nationalists who are against the reopening. "They are unable to resist foreign pressure," Onur Oymen, a leading member of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, the main opposition group in parliament, said about the government in Ankara. Oktay Vural, a high-ranking member of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, said that although "the European Union insists on opening the school", such a step would be "incompatible with the structure of Turkey as a nation-state".

The government would have to change existing laws to reopen the seminary. According to news reports, the education ministry recently came up with a report listing different options to reach that aim. One would be to have the school function as an institution or a foundation, while another way could be to tie the school directly to the education ministry and the board of higher education. The school was shut after Turkey's constitutional court ordered the closing of all private institutions of higher education in 1971. Today, there are many private universities in the country, but the Heybeliada seminary remains closed. A few monks maintain the 19th-century building on top of a hill on Heybeliada to be prepared for a possible decision to reopen it.

Mr Gunay, the culture minister, said the school was closed as a result of tensions betweens Greeks and Turks on the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus in the 1970s. "But now we have to say new things," the minister said, noting that the school once operated under Turkish law. Mr Gunay also stressed that it was preferable for Turkey to have Orthodox clergymen educated in Turkey instead of having to rely on priests educated abroad.

The main problem for Turkey, a secular republic with an overwhelming Muslim population, is the concern that giving independent status to the Greek Orthodox school could trigger demands for educational autonomy by Islamist groups, something the Turkish state is keen to avoid. "If Heybeliada receives permission, how do you deal with demands by others to open schools?" Mr Oymen of the CHP asked. Nimet Cubukcu, the education minister, said yesterday there had been no government decision yet, while Mr Gunay said work was continuing on a "technical level" to get the school restarted. The ultimate decision will rest with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. In a television interview this month, Mr Erdogan said he was willing to talk about the reopening, but said Greece should do something for the Turkish minority there. Ankara says Greece does not do enough to guarantee the rights of about 150,000 Greek citizens of Turkish descent.

The office of Bartholomew I, the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Istanbul and spiritual head of several hundred million Orthodox Christians worldwide, yesterday did not respond to requests for a statement on the latest debate. Officials at the patriarchate have said in the past that although ministers in Ankara sound positive about a reopening of the Heybeliada seminary from time to time, the Turkish state had never committed itself to a solution for the problem.

tseibert@thenational.ae