During the recent meeting between Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in New York (the first between the two leaders), the Greek prime minister raised the issue of the reopening of the Greek Orthodox theological school on the island of Halki, off Istanbul. The issue is pertinent to religious freedom and bears clear and significant international dimensions.
It’s hard to see why successive Turkish leaders have over the past 50 years refused to reopen a theological school. It’s hard to see why the students and future religious leaders of Orthodox Christianity would pose a threat to Ankara. In fact, the opposite appears more plausible. As Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios stressed a few months ago, in the presence of Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, “It is inexplicable that a school that was founded and opened in 1844, during the Ottoman period, was closed down during the Republican period, and has been kept closed for half a century.”
In recent decades, Halki has attracted international interest and has become yet another source of friction between Ankara and Washington as well as Brussels, both of which have been pressing Ankara to reopen the seminary while criticizing Turkey’s stance on this non-political issue. Similar concerns are being expressed over the stance of the Turkish state toward the patriarch of the time. Based on what reasoning does it choose to create obstacles for the work of the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide?
It’s hard to see why Turkey has for years avoided bolstering the international status of an institution that it was historically fortunate to be hosting on its territory. Ankara only has itself to blame for wasting the opportunity to convey the image of a country that respects other religions, including Orthodox Christianity.
Turkey ought to safeguard the Patriarchate’s unobstructed operation while highlighting its universal dimension, rather than undermining it. Doing so would ensure substantial as well as symbolic benefits for Turkey and at the same time strengthen the country’s bargaining power vis-a-vis not just Greece but also certain major powers – from the US, whose Greek-Orthodox community is the largest province of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, to Russia, which harbors its own ambitions in the Orthodox world.
Instead, it has spent half a century trying to harm the status and limit the activity and leverage of the Patriarchate. Attitudes of this sort can only damage Turkey.