Mon, Jul 14, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Orthodox Church looks to Europe for its survival


Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, accompanied by Anthony Limberakis, national commander of the Order of St. Andrew, right, talk at the garden of Halki Greek Orthodox Theological School in Heybeliada in Istanbul, Turkey.


At a site of Orthodox Christian study for more than 1,000 years, desks are kept dusted and ancient manuscripts carefully preserved. There is everything except students.

The Halki Theological School -- on an island off Istanbul -- was closed in 1971 by Turkish authorities in a huge blow to the spiritual heart of Orthodoxy. Without the seminary, the Orthodox are denied a center for theological study and clerical training in what was the ancient Byzantine capital.

Some fear this could one day leave them without an Istanbul-based patriarch, who is considered the "first among equals" in the world's Eastern Orthodox hierarchy.

The present ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I, has said often the school's fate rests "in the Lord's hands." But now a different type savior could now be sweeping in from the West: the European Union.

Turkey's ambition to join the EU has forced profound reforms mandated by Brussels, including abolishing the death penalty last year. On June 19, the Turkish parliament passed human rights changes that give more freedoms to minority Kurds, who were once discouraged from even giving their children Kurdish names.

An EU statement June 20 praised the reforms as a "clear sign" of Turkey's EU effort. Turkey hopes to start membership talks with the EU in 2005, but claims it could be ready next year.

Bartholomew and others cautiously hope the pro-EU tide could wash aside the restrictions on Halki and other rules on patriarch succession -- which some Orthodox leaders claim were imposed to cement Turkish control on the few thousand ethnic Greeks left in Istanbul.

"I think to join the EU ... such limits are not acceptable within the European mentality," Bartholomew said in early June.

For both sides, however, the issues run much deeper than just the patriarch's modest domain in Istanbul. The tradition, stability and even survival of the faith are often raised.

To the world's 200 million Orthodox, Halki is a tangible connection to the Byzantine Empire that ruled for more than 1,000 years until Constantinople fell to Ottoman Muslims in 1453 and became Istanbul.

The school -- once a key seminary for Orthodox leaders including Bartholomew -- was opened in 1844 on the site of a ninth century monastery. In 1971, the Turkish government shut the seminary college under a law requiring state control for all higher education involved in religious and military training. While there are other Orthodox seminaries around the world, none can match Halki's stature.

Turkey had already held sway over the Orthodox world for decades: a 1923 rule established that all ecumenical patriarchs must be Turkish citizens. That was the condition for allowing the patriarchate to remain in Istanbul under the Treaty of Lausanne, which also opened the way for a massive exchange of ethnic populations between Greece and Turkey.

The once vast ethnic Greek population in Istanbul and Turkey's Aegean coast began to evaporate. Today, less than 5,000 remain -- leaving just a handful of Turkish-born Orthodox clerics able to someday succeed the 63-year-old Bartholomew.

"At this rate, if nothing changes, our options for future patriarchs could be very, very, very limited," said the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in South America, Metropolitan Tarasios, who worked as an aide to Bartholomew for more than a decade. "Who's going to be left?"

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