When Turkey began talks with Brussels on the perspective of joining the European Union on October 2005, the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, was among the first who expressed his support to Ankara's European route. The spiritual leader of almost 300 million Orthodox Christians remains an unfaltering supporter of that clear and straightforward aim: Turkey's perspective towards Europe. However, two years after the official beggining of the EU-Turkish negotiations, the Istanbul-based Patriarchate still faces significant problems in its relation with the Turkish state. There is still a number of issues which create coherent concerns regarding Ankara´s will to make significant steps towards the safeguard of Religious rights and freedoms.
One of them is the case of Istanbul's Halki Theology Seminary which remains closed since 1971, as a result of a Turkish law which forbidded the function of foreign private universities. But the Seminary, which is based in Heybeliada island, isn´t an inconsiderable educational institution: established in 1844 it produced numerous Patriarchs and Bishops (among them the current Patriarch Bartholomew I), priests, theologicians and scholars consisting, during the past, the "corner stone" for Istanbul´s Greek Orthodox minority. Today, in order to serve its declining number of clergymen, the Patriarchate has a reasonable demand: it wants to provide training to all Orthodox Christians, irrespective of nationality.
The Seminary remains closed since 1971 and the Turkish goverment still avoids to take any official committment about the future re-opening of the School. However, it must be noted that the closure of the Seminary consists violation of specific laws, including provisions of the Lausanne Treaty, of the European Convention of Human Rights and of the Turkish Constitution itself. Indeed, according to Article 40 of the Lausanne Treaty, "Turkish nationals belonging to non-Moslem minorities [...] shall have an equal right to establish, manage and control at their own expense, any charitable, religious and social institutions, any schools and other establishments for instruction and education". Respective provisions are included in Article 24 about "Freedom of Religion" in the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, as well as in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Article 9).
The above facts created - and still create - an obvious consternation which has been expressed in many occassions: the late Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos of America had urged U.S. Presidents to exercise their pressure on Turkey for that matter, all Greek governments raised the issue in bilateral talks during the last couple of decades while various international organizations and Human Rights groups have supported the opening of the Halki Seminary. In his 1999 Turkey visit, President Bill Clinton included the issue in his talks with President Suleyman Demirel, while last month the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom at the State Department John Hanford stated that Ankara has failed to keep its promise. But most importantly, a few weeks ago, the European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering send a clear message: that the re-opening of the Seminary is a prerequisite for E.U. Turkey´s membership.
What becomes clear from the above is that Ankara must take some, maybe dolorous but important and needed, decisions, overtaking the inner conflict between hardline secularists and Muslim democrats. The Turkish government must allow the re-opening of the Halki Seminary but, on the same time, it has to recognize the actual, ecumenical, role of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople; an institution which consists an inextricable part of Istanbul's century-long outstanding history. By doing that, the Republic of Turkey will have done a significant step not only towards the invigoration of Religious freedoms' protection, but it would also give a boost to its European perspective.