Patriarch persists over Halki

Istanbul – Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, wants his legacy to be the reopening of a key training center for the world’s Orthodox clergy. In a documentary screened in Istanbul on Tuesday evening, the patriarch was shown walking through the empty halls of the theological school of Halki, on a small island off Istanbul and closed down more than 30 years ago by Turkish authorities. «This is discrimination and this is an injustice,» the patriarch said in the documentary to be broadcast on the French-German channel Arte in April. The patriarch studied at the school for 11 years. Sitting at a wooden desk in the school, a visibly sad Vartholomaios said he had wanted to become a teacher at Halki. «But by the time I was ready, the authorities had already closed the school down,» the patriarch said. Turkish authorities closed the school in 1971 under a law that put military and religious education under state control. Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, has strict secular laws. Greece and the United States have been lobbying Turkish authorities to reopen the school, but Turks fear that if religious schools are left outside state control, they could turn into fundamentalist training grounds. The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453. Although only a few thousand Greek Orthodox remain in Turkey today, Vartholomaios’s Patriarchate is still based in Istanbul and directly controls several Greek Orthodox churches around the world, including the church of North America. The documentary, directed by Lebanese director Jacques Debs, gave a rare glimpse into the daily life of the patriarch. The son of a barber and coffee shop owner on a small Turkish island that once had a large Greek population, Vartholomaios has a sweet tooth and a habit of taking pictures of his guests. He is shown as a very busy and active man, running up and down the stairs of the Patriarchate on the shore of Istanbul’s Golden Horn and constantly meeting Turkish officials, foreign dignitaries and religious leaders. When asked if he had already a successor in mind, Vartholomaios protested. «I am still young!» exclaimed the patriarch, who turns 63 next week. The patriarch lamented the fact that both nationalist circles in Turkey and Greece treat the Patriarchate with suspicion. The rights of the Patriarchate had to be respected regardless of the relations between Greece and Turkey, Vartholomaios said in the documentary screened before hundreds of guests, including the patriarch himself, top Turkish businessmen and many of Istanbul’s consul generals.