Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Wednesday expressed their shared hope that the Halki Orthodox seminary, which was shut down by Turkish authorities in 1971, will soon reopen.
After hailing the “highly symbolic” visit by Greece’s prime minister at the school on an island off the Istanbul coast, Vartholomaios, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, expressed hope that the day when the theological school is put back into operation “is not far distant.”
In his comments, Tsipras said a decision to reopen the seminary “would be evidence of friendship, mutual understanding and brotherhood.”
He said that protecting the rights of religious minorities was a self-evident obligation, “and not up for negotiation.”
“Religious faith should bring people together, not divide them,” he said.
Tsipras and Vartholomaios earlier attended a mass at the church of Hagia Triada (Holy Trinity).
Perched atop a hill on the Marmara islet with the same name, the Halki seminary was operated by the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate until a Turkish court ordered the school shut under a law curbing non-state religious education.
The European Union has in the past pressed Turkey to reopen the historic seminary, saying its closure undermines freedom of religion. The bloc has also tied it to Ankara’s membership ambitions. Pressure has also come from the United States. In a speech at the Turkish parliament in 2009, former president Barack Obama urged Ankara to reopen the seminary as a means of promoting freedom of religion and expression.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has previously suggested that its reopening depends on reciprocal measures from Greece designed to improve the lives of the country’s Muslim minority in the north.
In comments made after his meeting with Tsipras on Tuesday, Erdogan linked the question of the reopening of the Halki seminary to the ability of the Muslim minority of Thrace to appoint its own muftis.
Asked by a reporter about the Halki school, he said: “Every time this comes up, I tell them we should resolve the issue of the muftis in Western Thrace. Let’s also solve this issue.”
Founded in 1844, the Halki seminary was the training center for many Orthodox leaders, including Vartholomaios.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul dates back to the Byzantine Empire which came to an end when Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, in 1453.
Earlier on Wednesday, Tsipras paid a symbolic visit to Istanbul’s former cathedral Hagia Sophia. [Combined reports]
Επίσκεψη στον ιστορικό και ιερό τόπο της Χάλκης όπου είχα την ευκαιρία να ξεναγηθώ σε μια κιβωτό σοφίας και γνώσης, που είναι η βιβλιοθήκη της Θεολογικής Σχολής. pic.twitter.com/fl7cBnsU7T
— Prime Minister GR (@PrimeministerGR) February 6, 2019