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Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Believes the Pope's Visit May Prompt the Turkish Government to Respect the Rights of Minorities, Different Ethnic Groups and Religions

TURKEY - VATICAN
by Franco Pisano

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I believes the pope's visit may prompt the Turkish government to respect the rights of minorities, different ethnic groups and religions. Dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox is at a "crucial point" about the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) - This is "such an important visit and we anticipate it with great brotherly love". In the "Throne Room" of Fanar, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew I said the visit of Benedict XVI to Turkey would naturally have a "bearing" on ties between Catholics and Orthodox - a joint statement is expected - and on ties between Catholics and Muslims. But it could also have an impact on religious freedom and on the recognition of minority rights in Turkey. The state ignores these, despite international commitments and continued pressure from Europe, up to yesterday's resolution in which the European Parliament urged that the patriarchate and minorities be given their rights. His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I blesses a small child

The patriarch met a group of journalists of different nationalities straight after the conclusion of a Synodal meeting dedicated to the resumption, in Belgrade, of deliberations of the Mixed Catholic-Orthodox Commission, which had been stalled for six years and are now at a "crucial point".

He said: "It will be an important visit for Turkey and for ties and dialogue between religions. In general, the pope is expected with joy and openness here: the Turks are hospitable and cordial with foreigners. Paul VI and John Paul II have already come here without problems: if now there are any because of the address at Regensburg, this is an occasion for dialogue, to do away with misunderstanding. It is significant and important that, despite reactions to that speech, neither the Turkish government nor the pope wanted to postpone the visit."

"We followed his visit in Germany and the echoes of his conference in Regensburg. These things are well known and none of us want in any way to have tension among the monotheistic religions. The patriarchate has worked for years to improve ties and we will continue to do so towards an ideal of friendship and collaboration and for the good of mankind and the establishment of lasting peace on earth. I am sure the pope did not intend to offend our Muslim brothers. After all, Benedict XVI himself stressed this last Monday when he received envoys of Islamic countries accredited to the Vatican. We must respect each other's convictions, we must collaborate, recalling that on this planet, there is place for all and there is no need to cultivate confrontation and rancour. We do not want to offend the prophet, just as we do not want Christ to be insulted."

During his stay in Turkey, Benedict XVI will have three meetings with Bartholomew: Vespers in the small cathedral of the patriarchate dedicated to St George, "Divine Liturgy" that will be celebrated in the same church and mass that will be held by the pope for Catholics.

So they will be meeting three times, emphasizing this important moment in time for ecumenical dialogue. "After nearly six years, we have been able to start again in Belgrade," said Bartholomew. "I cannot predict now what may happen in years to come, but I am convinced it will depend on the goodwill, Christian courage and sincerity of both sides. With John Paul II, we made great progress, and Benedict XVI has already shown affection for Orthodoxy."

Metropolitan Ioannis of Pergamo, co-chairman of the Orthodox part of the Mixed Commission of dialogue with Catholics, was also present at the meeting between journalists and the patriarch. He said: "We have the theological and ecclesiological agenda in hand, especially the question of the primacy of Peter. No one denies that in the united Church, the bishop of Rome was the first, but there is the need to understand each other, there is no homogeneity even within the two Churches. Catholics and Orthodox must ask themselves what they can concede on the primacy. And this is what we are discussing. We are at a crucial point."

"Each of the two," intervened Bartholomew, "must make efforts to conserve their own traditions while at the same time seeking rapprochement".

For the Orthodox, the list of grievances due to a lack of respect for minorities is a long one, starting from the Treaty of Losanna signed by Turkey in 1923 and later ignored. Europe is now exerting pressure about this. "The patriarchate has always been in favour of the European path taken by our country, right from the start. I cannot hide, however, the existence of problems regarding minorities. For example, according to the Losanna Treaty, minorities have the right to open schools for religious education. We had one, a school on the island of Chalki. It flourished during the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic until 1971, when there was a decision to close it. Thus, the first among the Orthodox patriarchates does not have the right to form its youth. It is unacceptable."

As if this was not enough, "there is also an economic problem. We have been here for 17 centuries and our juridical personality has not been recognized. We have lost several assets. And even with regard to the school, we founded it in 1844. We have title deeds to prove it but ownership has not been guaranteed us. The same applies to an orphanage that was established on the island of Buiukata: we have an Ottoman title deed of ownership and another dating to the start of the Republic, but they took it from us. Now we have turned to the European Court."

There is a religious aspect too: the Ecumenical Patriarch, by law, must be a Turkish citizen. But there are only a few Orthodox Turks so options are restricted. "We have asked to be able to choose an Orthodox of any citizenship, upon whom the government may then confer citizenship, as happens in Egypt with the patriarch of Alexandria. But nothing has happened so far. We joyfully anticipate the upcoming visit of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on 5 and 6 October. There has been talk of some sort of protection for us, but it is not so. It is just that Germany is a great secular democracy that respects minorities. And there are expansive, good ties between Germany and Turkey and Mrs Merkel will meet me too." The patriarch's words before he took his leave were: "We expect respect of our rights from our authorities to be able to continue carrying out our mission in the service of humanity. In 1923, there were 280,000 Orthodox in Turkey, now there are just over 2,000. Why?"

Copyright 2003 AsiaNews
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