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Ecumenical Patriarch Chides Turkey over Religious Freedoms

Vartholomaios criticizes lack of autonomy, hopes seminary will reopen

EPA
Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Vartholomaios, seen here in a recent file photo, complained that Ankara is still failing to guarantee religious freedoms for non-Muslim minorities. However, he expressed guarded optimism that the Halki theological seminary will be reopened.

By Gareth Jones - Reuters

The spiritual leader of the world�s Orthodox Christians said EU candidate Turkey was still failing to fully guarantee religious freedoms, but he expressed guarded optimism that a Greek Orthodox seminary may soon reopen.

Turkey�s poor record in protecting its non-Muslim religious minorities is a key concern for the European Union, which is to decide in December whether to start entry talks with Ankara.

Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios I said his church faced legal and administrative obstacles that contravened Turkey�s commitments on religious freedom.

�We have the freedom to perform all our religious services but we have no right to administer our ecclesiastical foundations �- churches, monasteries, cemeteries, schools etc,� the patriarch said in a written reply to questions from Reuters. �As a result, many of them come under the administration of the state and the state gets to financially exploit them.�

�...One can see that the concept of religious freedom is very limited and shallow in Turkey,� he added.

Turkey has kept a tight rein on all religious activity, including Muslim and Christian, ever since the modern republic was founded as a secular state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Vartholomaios said he was hopeful that Turkey would agree to reopen the Halki theological seminary on Istanbul�s Heybeliada (Halki) island, closed in 1971 under a law limiting activities at post-secondary religious schools in Turkey.

�Our government realizes that reasons used in the past to justify the closing of the school were not right and not in accordance with the European perception of religious freedom,� he said.

�Furthermore, our government realizes the process for entry into the EU will accelerate if accusations of the violation of personal and religious freedom are dropped.�

Turkey, which has for decades taken tough measures to guard against Islamic extremism, fears allowing the Orthodox seminary to reopen could lead radical Islamist groups to demand the right to train their own clergy.

Officials are trying to find a formula that would satisfy the Church and EU standards without stoking extremism.

The reopening of the Halki seminary is a major concern for Vartholomaios because it provides the priests who will serve the Church in Turkey in the future. At present the priests have to receive their training abroad and generally do not return.

The patriarch also signaled support for Turkey�s drive to join the EU.

�We hope that the European perspective and the association of Muslims with Europeans will convince both parties that the peaceful coexistence and cooperation are both feasible and beneficial,� he said.