Around 1,000 ultra-nationalist Turks protested outside the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church on Sunday, according to the Turkish media. The protestors, who accused the Church of interfering in Turkey’s political affairs, reportedly oppose allowing the Greek Orthodox Church to own land and have been upset by reports of the government’s plans to reopen an Orthodox seminary on the island of Heybeliada near Istanbul.
Turkish media said the police used tear gas and batons to disperse hundreds of protesters marching towards the offices of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I on Sunday. Some nationalists have been angered by the government’s decision to allow the reopening of the Istanbul seminary, which trained generations of church leaders, including Bartholomew. The Turkish authorities closed the seminary in 1971.
The crowd, chanting slogans and waving nationalist banners, hung an effigy of the patriarch on a tree and set it alight. Their protests were also aimed at increasing number of foreigners buying property in Turkey.
Prior to Sunday’s protests, the demonstrators clashed earlier with police after being prevented from marching on the church beside the Bosphorus in the Fener district of Istanbul, which also houses the patriarch’s offices. Turkish television said police detained a number of protesters.
In a recent interview with Reuters, Patriarch Bartholomew said that his church continued to face legal and administrative obstacles despite the government reforms.
Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, was the center of Orthodox Christianity until it fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453. The patriarch remains nominal head of the church, though the number of Orthodox Christians in Turkey is now tiny.
The BBC's James Ingham says reforms allowing more rights to Orthodox Christians are promoted by a government keen to show it is committed to a secular society as its possible membership of the European Union is being considered.
Religious freedom is expected to be high on the agenda of EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, who arrived in Turkey on Sunday evening for four days of talks ahead of next month's crucial progress report on Ankara's readiness for negotiations.
The Turkish government, keen to increase its prospects for joining the EU, has made it clear in the last year that it is considering reopening the religious school. Meanwhile, the EU has said it is keen to see wider religious freedom ahead of membership talks.
Christians are a minority in Turkey, but Istanbul remains the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch - who is considered to be the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians.
But Nationalist leader Yuksel Kaleci said in a statement that Turkey "is making concession after concession to foreigners and especially to the Patriarchate".
The Patriarchate condemned the "violence" by demonstrators on Sunday. In a statement, it said the protests were the result of "the provocations of people intent on blocking Turkey's EU path".
The European Union, critical of Turkey for failing to ensure the religious freedoms of non-Muslim minorities, is closely watching how Ankara is handling the requests for the reopening of the school.