Istanbul’s Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew II admitted last week that he is “losing sleep” over the long-delayed opening of the Holy Theological School of Halki. The historic seminary is located on an island hilltop, an hour’s ferry ride from Istanbul.
One of the most prestigious seminaries in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Halki school for religious instruction was founded in 1844 to train clerics and theologians. But it has been closed for the past 46 years, ever since a 1971 Turkish government decree banned all religious higher education schools apart from state-controlled Islamic institutions.
In an Agos interview with Patriarch Bartholomew, himself a graduate of the Halki seminary, the Greek Orthodox primate said this ongoing restriction represents “unjust policies of the past” and constitutes a major problem for all Turkey’s Christian communities, whose rights of religious education are protected by the Lausanne Treaty of 1923.
In a significant development in 2013, the Turkish government returned ownership of some non-Muslim foundation properties to their previous owner. Among them was the 190-acre forest encompassing the Halki seminary complex, which was given back to its affiliated Holy Trinity Monastery Foundation.
But even though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirmed in May 2015 that there was “no legal obstacle” to the Christian seminary’s re-opening, he has continued to cite “reciprocity” concerns. Ankara insists that the Greek government must grant rights to its 100,000 Muslim citizens of Turkish descent to build and operate mosques in Athens and Thessalonica. Particularly in these larger cities, Muslim places of worship in Greece had been relegated to makeshift sites.
Caught in the winds of historic ethno-religious nationalism, both Turkey and Greece have demonstrated for decades a lack of political will to resolve their corresponding freedom of belief issues.
But the administration of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has since 2014 streamlined its process for registering mosques, and is now nearing completion of Athens’ first state-funded mosque to be built in Greece in more than 180 years. In another government project, the 17th century Fethiye Mosque is being restored in Athens to house collections from four centuries of Ottoman rule.
Patriarch Bartholomew is calling on the Turkish authorities to take a reciprocal step, to re-open the Halki seminary. Preparations for its re-opening have been completed over the past three years, he confirmed, including a curriculum for offering masters-level education for 3+2 years.
The seminary houses a famed library collection of more than 80,000 books, including an original copy of Aristophanes’ comedies published in 1484, one of the oldest printed books in the world.