By JAMES C. HELICKE
The Associated Press�
A furor in Turkey ignited by the title of a Christian spiritual leader on a U.S. embassy invitation has underscored concerns about the largely Muslim country's treatment of minorities two weeks before the European Union decides whether to open membership talks with Ankara.
The problem revolved around the status of the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, a Turkish citizen and ethnic Greek. He is considered ``first among equals'' of the world's Orthodox patriarchs and directly controls several Greek Orthodox Churches around the world.
But Turkey has long refused to accept any international role for the patriarch and rejects his use of the title ``ecumenical,'' or universal. It argues the patriarch is merely spiritual leader of Istanbul's dwindling Orthodox community of less than 3,000.
So when the U.S. Embassy sent out invitations for a reception on Thursday hosted by Ambassador Eric Edelman that referred to Bartholomew as ``ecumenical patriarch'' - a term long accepted by the United States and Europe - Turkish officials were furious.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, which has made EU membership its top priority and hopes to open membership talks with the bloc next year, ordered public officials not to attend the reception.
``We find it wrong that although none of our citizens has such a title, that invitations are issued in this form,'' Erdogan said in a television interview on Wednesday, adding that the patriarch's status was determined by an international treaty signed in 1923.
The issue goes to the heart of questions about Turkey's commitment to European values. The EU has said that improved rights for ethnic and religious minorities would be a condition for Turkey's EU membership.
Turkey's desire to contain Bartholomew's influence to Istanbul stems from a deep mistrust many Turks feel toward the patriarchate because of its traditional ties with Greece, Turkey's historical regional rival.
But the dispute has flared at precisely the wrong time for Turkey - ahead of a Dec. 17 summit that will decide whether to begin membership negotiations for its entry into the EU.
In October, a parliamentary bill to criminalize adultery also raised questions about Turkey's commitment to European values, just as Brussels was considering a preliminary recommendation on opening talks.
The crisis was defused when Erdogan, whose party has Islamic roots, persuaded lawmakers to back away from the law. But the EU report that eventually cleared the way for the Dec. 17 decision suggested that improved rights for ethnic and religious minorities would be a condition for membership.
It said ``religious freedom is subject to serious limitations as compared with European standards'' and mentioned the patriarchate's problems with a theology school. It also noted the precise issue that has now emerged, saying disapprovingly that ``the ecclesiastical title of Ecumencial Patriarch is still banned.''
With EU membership at stake for Turkey, Bartholomew has been heightening his criticism of the Turkish government.
Most notably, he has increased calls for the reopening of a theology school on an island outside Istanbul that trained generations of church leaders, including Bartholomew, until it was closed by Turkey in 1971.
``We are very saddened, both as a patriarchate and as a community. We had expected our problems to end, and now we have all sorts of new issues coming out,'' Bartholomew said during a meeting in Istanbul Wednesday with Greek Tourism Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos. ``None of our problems has been solved. We have more attacks against us even though we are on the brink of a decision to get a date for Europe.''
The reception Thursday in Ankara, which Bartholomew did not attend, was for members of the American chapter of the Order of St. Andrew, an organization of prominent Orthodox churchmen from the United States. The group also met with Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and pressed demands to reopen the school and resolve the other disputes.
The patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453.
In Athens, the head or the Orthodox Church of Greece, Archbishop Christodoulos, defended the patriarchate Thursday and accused Turkey of violating its obligation toward the EU.
NTVDecember 2- The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew II has entered into
the controversy surrounding the use of the term "ecumenical" in his title,
saying that this was a historical epithet.
"We will not give up on it," he said. "We do not deny our identity. It is not up to them to tell us who are. We know who we are for centuries," the Patriarch said according to a report carried by Greek television station ET 3.
The controversy arose earlier this week when invitations to a reception being held by the US Embassy in Ankara for a visiting Orthodox delegation, described Bartholomew as the Ecumenical Patriarch, a title that Turkey does not recognise. The Office of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter instructing all Turkish officials not to attend the reception.
Bartholomew said that they had informed the Turkish authorities at least one hundred times that they did not want to have the similar status as the Vatican, Greek television said.
"We do not want to give this title a political context. Becoming a second Vatican is not in keeping with the Orthodox Church's principles," he said.
The Athens News Agency reported that the Patriarch had said that he was disappointed in having none of the problems of the Orthodox Church in Turkey resolved. In the report Bartholomew said that there were still facing attacks while Turkey stands at the doorstep of the EU.
"On January 30 the Education Ministry said that there were no reasons for not activating the Heybeliada Seminary. But now we are told it is a threat to state security," he told the agency.