Patriarchate row grows

ISTANBUL (AP) – Two weeks before the European Union’s decision on whether to open membership talks with Turkey, there comes a reminder of the issue’s complexities. A US Embassy reception in Ankara yesterday in honor of US Orthodox officials ignited a furor between the Turkish government and the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians – underscoring concerns about the largely Muslim country’s treatment of minorities. Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios, a Turkish citizen and ethnic Greek, is considered «first among equals» of the world’s Orthodox patriarchs. But Turkey has long refused to accept any international role for the patriarch, and rejects his use of the title «ecumenical,» or universal. It claims Vartholomaios is merely spiritual leader of Istanbul’s dwindling Orthodox community of less than 3,000. So when the US Embassy sent out invitations for the reception hosted by Ambassador Eric Edelman that referred to Vartholomaios as «ecumenical patriarch» – a term long accepted by Washington and European governments – Ankara was furious. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government sent out a decree to public officials ordering them not to attend. «We find it wrong that although none of our citizens has such a title, that invitations are issued in this form,» he said in a television interview on Wednesday. [On Wednesday, Vartholomaios complained bitterly about Ankara’s backtracking on a promise to reopen the Halki Orthodox Seminary, that was closed by Turkey in 1971. The status of a Greek orphanage on Prinkiponisos is also a problem.] The EU report that cleared the way for the December 17 summit decision warned that, in Turkey, «religious freedom is subject to serious limitations,» mentioning the Patriarchate’s problems with the seminary and orphanage. It also noted the precise issue that has now emerged, saying that «the ecclesiastical title of ecumenical patriarch is still banned.» [Yesterday, the US State Department stepped in on the Patriarchate’s side, with spokesman Richard Boucher observing that Vartholomaios is the leader of millions of Orthodox Christians throughout the world. Edelman also noted that the Patriarchate’s problems are of concern to the US government. In Athens, the government said Turkey must meet EU requirements on respecting religious freedoms. Meanwhile, about 100 ultra-nationalist Turks protested outside the US Embassy yesterday, during the reception.]