The Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew has been critical of the stance of the Turkish government towards the Patriarchate and the country's remnants of its once large and vibrant Christian Orthodox community in an interview with CBS television.
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Patriarch Bartholomew said Turkey’s Greek Orthodox community does not feel that they enjoy full freedoms as Turkish citizens and that they are treated as “second-class citizens.”
Referring to circles within the Turkish establishment, the Patriarch said “[They] would be happy to see the patriarchate extinguished or moving abroad, but our belief is that it will never happen”. “I have visited the prime minister, many ministers, submitting our problems … asking [them] to help us,” with no success.
The European Union and the US have frequently criticized Turkey for not reopening the Halki Greek Orthodox seminary closed in 1971 and not taking measures to protect the patriarchate’s property rights.
The Halki seminary closure for almost four decades has meant that the Patriarchate has virtually no senior clergymen from Turkey's orthodox community and therefore faces a bleak future. The Turkish government says it has been assessing a number of legal options to open the Halki Seminary - which Bartholomew says is of vital importance for the survival of the Greek Orthodox clergy. It has also pushed for a law to restore the property rights of non-Muslim foundations despite objections from the opposition. The law expands property rights for non-Muslim foundations but does not change the status of property seized by the state in past decades and therefore does not redress decades of punitive legislation and policy towards Turkey's Orthodox minority.
“It is not [a] crime … to be a minority living in Turkey, but we are treated as … second class,” Patriarch Bartholomew told CBS. We don’t feel that we enjoy our full rights as Turkish citizens.”
Asked whether he would consider going to Greece, he said he would stay in Turkey. “This is the continuation of Jerusalem and for us an equally holy and sacred land. We prefer to stay here, even crucified sometimes”.
Patriarch Bartholomew’s remarks have led to expressions of irritation and anger in Ankara. Turkish government spokesman Cemil Çiçek echoed Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s criticism of the Patriarch. Çiçek said the ruling Justice and Development Party has been committed to the process of democratization and increasing rights and freedoms since it came to power in 2003 and stressed that demands should be discussed inside the country."
The fact is, that despite the Turkish government's expressed good will, the problems faced by the Patriarchate and the country's orthodox community, whose rights have been enshrined in the Lausanne Treaty, have not been addressed as yet. A once sizeable community barely counts today 3,000 people and its mark on the Istanbul cityscape has systematically been obliterated by successive overzealous governments.
Instead of castigating the Patriarch for his agonizing cry, perhaps the Turkish government should attempt to address the pressing needs of those Turkish citizens his voice sought to represent.
The problems faced by the Patriarchate in Turkey, just as the headscarf issue in a number of Western European countries or the recent minaret ban in Switzerland indicate that it is time to cast a critical look at the aggressive secularism that is often used as a means of weakening vulnerable minorities.