ISTANBUL – Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, yesterday called for Turkey to change a requirement that only Turkish citizens can become patriarch, since there are dwindling numbers of Turkish nationals who could become his successor. In a rare television interview, Vartholomaios said that ethnic Greeks have sometimes been regarded as «second-class citizens» in Turkey, but he expressed hope that their situation could improve under a new government, which has Islamic roots. The Patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453. Vartholomaios, an ethnic Greek and a Turkish citizen, said only between 2,000 and 3,000 ethnic Greeks remained in Istanbul – from some 125,000 last century – which could make it difficult to elect a successor. «Our congregation has shrunk greatly… the condition that the patriarch must be a Turkish citizen means the possibility of choosing a patriarch in a few years will be limited,» Vartholomaios, 63, said in an interview with private CNN-Turk television from the Istanbul-based Patriarchate. Vartholomaios said the patriarch should be allowed to be elected from top clergy from around the world. «Let the patriarch be chosen from among them and the Turkish State give the elected one Turkish citizenship,» Vartholomaios said. Vartholomaios pointed out that in 1948 Athinagoras I, a US citizen, was elected patriarch. «As soon as he landed he was given a Turkish passport and identity card,» Vartholomaios said. «I think that could be quite good and could be repeated.» Vartholomaios also called for Turkey to reopen a key theological school that was closed in 1971 by Turkish authorities under a law that put religious education under state control. The Halki seminary trained generations of church leaders, including Vartholomaios. Vartholomaios said the school’s reopening was important for the Church’s future. «The closing of the school was a great injustice,» he said. «How are we going to train our religious leaders?» «If there’s political will, a solution can and will be found,» Vartholomaios said. Vartholomaios said the Constitution promised equality to all of its citizens, but complained that Greeks haven’t been treated equally in recent years. «In recent years we haven’t benefited from this equality,» Vartholomaios said. «We have been seen as second-class citizens.» But Vartholomaios praised recent talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul in Ankara. «They said they would try to find a solution,» he said. «I returned to Istanbul with that hope.» Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has roots in Turkey’s Islamic movement, but party leaders say they are not seeking an Islamic agenda and have been emphasizing Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Vartholomaios – who starts a visit to Libya today – is considered the first among equals among Orthodox patriarchs. Turkey only recognizes him as the spiritual head of Turkey’s Greek Orthodox community.