Future for Halki school?

ISTANBUL – There’s an air of expectancy at the Greek Orthodox theological college on the island of Heybeliada (Halki in Greek), off Istanbul – neatly folded towels await students at the foot of newly made dormitory beds – even though the school has been closed for the past 32 years. «Everything is ready for us to start up again,» says Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios. The college, the only Christian one in Turkey, was ordered closed by the government in 1971. Since then the hilltop school, surrounded by gardens and a pine wood, has been kept clean and tidy by a handful of monks who live in the adjacent Holy Trinity monastery, founded more than 11 centuries ago. «The college was in some ways a victim of the situation in Cyprus where Turkish-Greek disputes eventually led to the invasion of the northern part of the island by the Turkish army in 1974,» according to the patriarch. Vartholomaios, 63, the down-to-earth spiritual leader of sometimes disparate Orthodox churches, recently held talks with Turkish government ministers and is hopeful the school will be reopened «within the next 12 months.» He is counting on pressure from the European Union, which Turkey wants to join, to force the government to abide by its 1923 Lausanne treaty obligations on the protection of non-Muslim minorities in the country. Turkish Education Minister Cemil Huseyin Celik this week signaled his government was ready to act, but he went on to urge Greece to make reciprocal gestures to improve the rights of its own Turkish minority. Vartholomaios, who spent 11 years of his life at the college, first as a student and later as dean, is willing to put the college under the supervision of the state, but will not to open it to women or non-orthodox students. His position at the head of the Ecumenical Partriarchate of Constantinople means, in theory at least, he is «first among equals» in the Orthodox Church. But the Russian Orthodox Church does not recognize his leadership and the Church in Greece is currently involved in a power struggle with him over control of rich northern Greek dioceses. The reopening of the college is all the more important as the clergy of the now-minute Greek community in Turkey is aging fast. Turkey also insists that the patriarch be a Turkish citizen, though it did make an exception in the 1950s, granting an American citizen Turkish nationality for the purpose. «More than 1,000 students have been trained in the past at Halki,» says Father Dorotheos, one of the monks at the monastery. Vartholomaios himself is nostalgic about the years he spent on the island which he describes as «a place between heaven and earth.» The day used to start with prayers, followed by morning classes, lunch around a table set for 150 while listening to prayers, the occasional football match in the garden and the compulsory evening walk around the island prior to a period of silence before bedtime. Today, the college’s 60,000-book library is used by half a dozen scholars who visit in summer. In the church monastery, an icon of the Virgin Mary is also awaiting government permission – to be sent to the New York Metropolitan Museum for an exhibition.