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Turkey's Christian tradition dates back centuriesImage: AP

Christians on Turkey's Fringes

Dorian Jones (tkw)
February 19, 2006

An EU report on minorities in Turkey has raised concerns over the country's treatment of its Christians. Since the Halki seminary closed in the seventies, the Church in Turkey has had no center for clerical training.


Halki, which belongs to the Orthodox church in Istanbul and is situated on the old-fashioned island of Heybeli, was closed down in 1971 by the Turkish government under a law requiring state control of all higher education institutes involved in religious training. It has never re-opened since.

Dating back to 1844, the school, which is perched on the top of the island, used to turn out well-educated, high-ranking church officials. And although it closed almost 35 years ago, the school is still in pristine condition. Father Dorotheos is one of those responsible for its upkeep.

"When the school was at the peak of its activity, there were never more than 120 students here," he said, adding that the combination of small numbers and quality of the professors ensured that students received an excellent education.

Clergy must be Turkish

Christlich-Orthodoxes Weihnachtsfest in Istanbul
Worshippers at a services at the Patriarchate in IstanbulImage: AP

When the school closed, it meant the Orthodox Church had to turn to institutions outside Turkey for its leaders. The Patriarchate in Istanbul is a focal point for Turkey's Orthodox Christians, and the headquarters for the Orthodox Church and its 250 million followers, but the Turkish state refuses to recognize the church's status and insists that all members of the clergy be of Turkish nationality.

With the seminary out of action, Archbishop Meliton of the Patriarchate says his religious community is slowly being strangled. "We only have a few clergymen left. We have about 16 bishops, nine of whom are already 75 years old, with the others around 65 or 66. And we only have four or five members of the clergy with Turkish nationality," Meliton said, adding that despite attempts to communicate with the government, "there is no dialogue between the patriarchate and the authorities."

Seeking EU support

So the orthodox community is now looking to the European Union for support. At a recent EU conference organized by the European parliament's Christian Democratic parties, Archbishop Meliton drove his point home. Wilfred Martens, who is head of the Christian Democrats in the parliament, sees the closure of the school as symbolic of a wider problem.

"If the school could be reopened, it would be a positive signal of a fundamental change in Turkey," he said, stressing that "religious freedom is a fundamental right," which Turkey would have to observe if it hoped to become a member of the European Union.

Bartholomäus I.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. in Istanbul, TurkeyImage: AP

But the EU isn't only concerned about the reopening of the school. Over the years, the Turkish authorities have confiscated property belonging to churches and hospitals, and fresh disputes emerge every month. Until recently, all churches and foundations were banned from receiving donations in the form of property.

Discriminatory practices

In the area around Istanbul's main high street, which was once home to hundreds of thousands of Christians, the sound of church bells used to be as common as the call to prayer. One of the buildings in the district used to belong to a hospital foundation run by Armenian Christians, but it was seized in 1996 after a court ruled the property could not be left to the hospital.

Türkei Angriff auf armenische Kirche in Kayseri
Armenian church in Kayseri, TurkeyImage: AP

The foundation organizers claim the property seizures are part of a wider pattern of discrimination against Christians in Turkey and are now taking their case to the European court. Their biggest hope is that the EU can be instrumental in putting a stop to discrimination and the domestic mentality which persists in perceiving Christians as outsiders.
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