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Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Discusses Minority Rights with Turkish PM

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan outside the Patriarchal Orphanage. The historic orphanage is the largest single-structure wooden building in Europe and second largest in the world having served as the Patriarchal Orphanage until the 1960's. (Photo: N. Manginas)

His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew had a luncheon meetng on the island of Buyukada with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior ministers concerning non-Muslim minority and religious freedom rights on Saturday, August 15, 2009. The meeting coincided with government reform aimed to address decades-old tensions with the country's 12 million Kurds. His All Holiness, joined by leaders of the Armenian, Jewish, Assyrian Orthodox, and Catholic communities, delivered a report on the main problems of religious minorities and presented it to Erdogan.

The 88-article report includes such issues as reopening the Orthodox Theological School of Halki, violations of property rights, and bringing attention to cultural diversity and to the problems of local administration on the island of Heybeliada (Halki).

While only reporters from the Anatolia News Agency and the state-run Turkish Radio and Television Corporation were allowed to attend the meeting, Prime Minister Erdogan promised democratic reforms to the religious leaders. Turkey is passing through a transition period, Erdogan said in his remarks, admitting that problems have been experienced during this process along which the government has been exerting efforts for further democratization of the country, Anatolia reported.

The government is against both ethnic and religious nationalism, he continued, underlining that they have kept an equal distance from every ethic and religious group in society. "Are there not deficiencies regarding implementation? Yes, there are. We will overcome these [deficiencies] with a struggle to be carried out all together, and I believe that this democratic initiative will change a lot of things in our country. Only if we stand hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder."

Erdogan was quoted as saying by Anatolia. "Persians have a saying, 'They gathered, talked and dispersed.' We should not be of those who gather, talk and disperse. A result should come out of this."

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Prime Minister later toured the Haghia Yorgi Church, where they had a private conversation in which His All Holiness voiced his community's concerns. They also visited the Patriarchal Orphanage on Buyukada, which was seized by the Turkish state a decade ago. The European Court of Human Rights issued a landmark decision last year that the Turkey Government had wrongly confiscated the property. The government has yet to act on that ruling. His All Holiness also raised the issue of the Halki Seminary, but Erdogan made no statement on the issue. An Ecumenical Patriarchate official later said. "We believe the prime minister is looking for a way to open the school. There is movement on this. It was a very positive, very friendly meeting."

Turkey signaled last month that the seminary may open after pressure from the EU and U.S. President Barack Obama who, while visiting Turkey in April said, "Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond."

The EU has made reopening Halki Seminary a test of the government's commitment to religious freedom for non-Muslims. The Theological institution was forcibly closed by the Turkish Government in 1971.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew voiced pleasure over the meeting with the Prime Minister, saying "We have been inspired with hope; we are optimistic." His All Holiness was also quoted saying the meeting was "historical" and "a big step."