EU Could Become a Savior for Orthodox Christians in Turkey

Jul 14, 2003 12:04 AM EDT

ATHENS — At a site of Orthodox Christian study for more than 1,000 years, desks are kept dusted and ancient manuscripts carefully preserved. There is everything except students.

The Halki Theological School — on an island off Istanbul — was closed in 1971 by Turkish authorities in a huge blow to the spiritual heart of Orthodoxy. Without the seminary, the Orthodox are denied a center for theological study and clerical training in what was the ancient Byzantine capital.

Some fear this could one day leave them without an Istanbul-based patriarch, who is considered the "first among equals" in the world's Eastern Orthodox hierarchy.

The present ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I, has said often that the school's fate rests "in the Lord's hands." But now a different type of savior could be sweeping in from the West: the European Union.

Turkey's ambition to join the EU has forced profound changes, including abolishing the death penalty last year.

Bartholomew and others cautiously hope the pro-EU tide could wash aside the restrictions on Halki and other rules on patriarchal succession — which some Orthodox leaders claim were imposed to cement Turkish control over the few thousand ethnic Greeks left in Istanbul.

"I think to join the EU such limits are not acceptable within the European mentality," Bartholomew said in early June.

For both sides, however, the issues run much deeper than the patriarch's modest domain in Istanbul. The tradition, stability and even survival of the faith are often raised.

Today, fewer than 5,000 ethnic Greeks remain in Turkey — leaving just a handful of Turkish-born Orthodox clerics able someday to succeed the 63-year-old Bartholomew under Turkish rules requiring that the patriarch be a Turkish citizen.

To the world's 200 million Orthodox Christians, Halki represents a tangible connection to the Byzantine Empire that ruled for more than 1,000 years until Constantinople fell to Ottoman Muslims in 1453 and became Istanbul.

Though there are other Orthodox seminaries in the world, none can match Halki's stature.

But under Turkish law, no independent religious schools are allowed for higher degrees — which forced the closure of the Halki seminary in 1971.

A Turkish parliament member, Onur Oymen, said amending the religious education rules for the Orthodox could open the door for Islamic fundamentalists and other groups to seek the same privileges.

"Laws prohibit private, high-level, religious schools. There isn't a single Muslim university in Turkey," he said. "It doesn't have anything to do with [being] Christian or Muslim."