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Seminary Stays Shut as Turkey Bucks EU Pressure

The blackboards are clean, desks dusted and library books neatly ranged. The Greek Orthodox seminary on this idyllic island off Istanbul is ready and waiting to take in new student priests.
( [email protected] ) Oct 04, 2006 12:47 PM EDT

HEYBELIADA, Turkey, - The blackboards are clean, desks dusted and library books neatly ranged. The Greek Orthodox seminary on this idyllic island off Istanbul is ready and waiting to take in new student priests.

But this autumn, as for the past 35 years, Halki seminary remains shut, despite pressure on Turkey to reopen it to qualify for European Union membership. Visitors reaching the hilltop retreat by horse-drawn carriage find the place empty.

The 162-year-old seminary, a barometer of religious freedom in secular Turkey, which has a Muslim majority, seemed close to revival as Ankara debated changing a law that shut it in 1971.

But the Islamist-rooted government had to pull a proposed change in the law when the secular-minded opposition charged it would change the status of religious minorities in Turkey.

"The Ecumenical Patriarchate, the focal point of the Orthodox world, cannot even educate its own clergy," complained Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual head of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians.

"There would be no problem if the political will to reopen the school were there," he said, "but unfortunately, for the moment, it is missing."

The seminary is caught in a tangled web of conflicting concerns. The European Union has made its reopening a litmus test of Ankara's commitment to religious freedom.

Turkey, the only rigorously secular state in the Muslim world, argues it cannot reopen Halki without letting Islamist groups launch their own schools that could radicalize local Muslims.

Ankara is also wary of any step that might strengthen the Ecumenical Patriarchate and lead to a kind of "Orthodox Vatican" in Istanbul, which was the Byzantine capital of Constantinople until the Ottoman Turks conquered it in 1453.

"What's ultimately at stake is the ecumenical character of the Ecumenical Patriarchate," said Metropolitan Apostolos, abbot of the Halki monastery and head of the empty school.

FRESH BLOOD FROM ABROAD

Before it closed, Halki buzzed with about 125 students, mostly from Turkey and Greece but also from such unexpected places as Ethiopia and Britain.

It was often the first step to higher office in Orthodox churches in Turkey, Greece and Egypt -- over the years, 330 of its 950 graduates became bishops, archbishops or patriarchs.

The current law says students must be Turkish citizens, a severe restriction at a time when priestly vocations have waned and death and emigration have reduced the once-large ethnic Greek population in Istanbul to about 3,000.

The dwindling pool of potential priests has also thinned out the ranks of theologians to help the Ecumenical Patriarchate conduct dialogue with other Christian denominations, Muslims and Jews, Bartholomew told visiting journalists in Istanbul.

"Most students and teachers would have to come from abroad," said Apostolos as he showed visitors the monastery's sheep, goats and chickens. "We have always been an ecumenical school. Catholics and Protestants could study here too."

Halki seminary opened in 1844 at a monastery founded on the island in the ninth century. Meant to supply priests for the Ottoman Empire's Greek minority, it expanded to the point where it had to open a large new building in 1896.

Set amid cool pines and palm trees, the seminary has the high ceilings, wide halls and well-worn wooden desks of schools built before computers and air conditioning.

KEEPING UP APPEARANCES

Apart from new paint and some aluminum window frames, little seems to have changed since 1971, when Ankara shut university-level religious schools, including Muslim ones.

"We do everything needed to maintain the building," Apostolos, one of four monks here, said in the chandeliered reception hall amid portraits of his predecessors.

In the library, a treasure trove of 60,000 books dating back to the 15th century, Father Dorotheos has installed the first of the glass-fronted cabinets meant to protect the collection now stacked on rough wooden shelves.

"The library is not dead even though the school is not functioning," he insisted as he showed off books in Greek, Turkish, English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.

The library, which dates back to the monastery's founding, lost many valuable manuscripts to marauding Crusaders in the early 13th century. "They can be found now in libraries and museums across Europe," he said sadly.

But bishops and theologians often donate their personal book collections, so it needs no budget to keep its shelves full -- one volume -- "Dogma and Preaching" from 1973 -- by the then Father Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict.

THIRD-CLASS CITIZENS

Responding to European Union pressure, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's government produced a reform package that included an article allowing foreign students to study at schools run by ethnic minorities -- an indirect green light to reopen Halki.

Pressed by the opposition, it withdrew that part of the package and ruled out changing the seminary's status. "We, as the government, have no such plan," Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said to reassure critics.

Apostolos said the Orthodox Church, which was allowed to hold summer seminars at Halki from 1993 to 1998, seemed to be under more pressure recently despite EU pressure on Ankara to reform and several church properties had been confiscated.

"We are not second-class citizens here, we're third-class," he said bitterly. "The minorities had more freedom to practice their religion in the Ottoman Empire."