ISTANBUL, Turkey — While there are plenty of reasons why Pope Francis is going to Turkey this weekend, the official motive is clear: To meet Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, and to move Catholicism and Orthodoxy closer to unity.
The small Orthodox community Francis will find may not exactly be on life support, but it faces severe pressure related to being a minority in a country that’s 98 percent Muslim, and where Christians are often seen as a foreign presence.
In 2009, the normally measured Bartholomew said he felt “crucified” by a state that wants to see his Church simply die out. The most notorious example of that hostility has been the forced 1971 closure of the renowned Halki Seminary, which remains shuttered today.
Speaking to this week, Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, the Orthodox Metropolitan of Bursa and abbot of the Halki Monastery, insisted that reopening Halki would pose no threat to Turkish stability: “It isn’t a military academy,” he said, “it’s a seminary!”
He argued that giving its Christianity minority more breathing room would actually be good for Turkey.
“As a Muslim country, Turkey sometimes has problems expressing itself to the Western world, which projects what’s going on in Syria and Iraq to the rest of the Middle Eastern countries,” he said.
“If, as a Christian, I explain how it’s possible to coexist peacefully with Islam, the world will listen,” he said. “We’re willing to speak in their name, but the seminary is instrumental for that possibility.”
Lambriniadis called the looming Nov. 28-30 trip by Pope Francis to Turkey, which will bring him to the Orthodox headquarters at the Phanar on Saturday, “proof of the permanent good will on both sides to keep this dialogue of love and understanding.”
Bartholomew and Francis have been able to build a relationship based on a personal friendship. They’ve met each other in Israel and twice at the Vatican. Do you think it can be replicated at the level of the faithful?
Lambriniadis: Look at the dioceses. Orthodox have good relationships with Roman Catholics. Many Orthodox communities wouldn’t be able to have their churches built if it wasn’t for the support for the local Catholic parishes. I studied in Germany, I know our churches would have many difficulties if it wasn’t for the local Catholics and Protestants.
Let’s talk about the Halki Seminary that has been closed since 1971. How important is it that it’s reopened?
The Ecumenical Patriarchate [is] first among equals in the Orthodox churches. If we’re deprived of the possibility of forming future priests with a mentality of respect for other Christians and other religions, we’re deprived of the right to renew ourselves. We have to take priests from other churches and send our seminarians to seminaries that don’t belong to us. There they receive an education that, perhaps, doesn’t represent our mentality.
Our priests used to be able to work everywhere in the world. They spoke languages, knew Islam and Catholicism very well, and they grew with a mentality of unity. Not having this possibility endangers our future as a Church. All Orthodox Churches have their seminaries, except for us.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said there’s no legal obstacle to reopen the seminary. What are the reasons behind the reluctance to do so?
There’s a misunderstanding of reciprocity in the government, which states that Greece, a completely different country, must take some steps towards the protection of human rights in their own country [to open a Mosque in Athens] so that Turkey can take steps in support of its own people.
This is a paradox. A democratic State cannot make its own citizens hostages to claim for the human rights of the citizens of another country. This is no explanation: We’re not tourists or illegal immigrants. We’re citizens and we expect to be treated as such.
Another reason could be the political cost reopening the seminary would have for Erdoğan …
Yes, but if a political party that has 50 percent of the votes is afraid of the political cost of reopening a theology school, then who can do it? Is it really that important that it will endanger the political and economic stability of the country? I don’t believe that. It isn’t a military academy; it’s a seminary!
Everyone recognizes the strength of Erdoğan’s character, regardless of their opinions of him. He’s a strong politician and a historical figure. If he doesn’t have the political courage to do such good for his own country, who will? That’s why we were so disappointed when, in 2013, he didn’t include the seminary as part of the democratization package announced in September. Missing such a historical opportunity was a mistake.
But the Church has the advantage of having eternity as perspective. We waited for 43 years, we’ll wait as long as needed. I don’t know if it’ll be in my time or not, but it’ll be reopened.
Do you think the government could benefit in some way by the reopening of Halki?
Yes! It’s also important for Islam. As a Muslim country, Turkey sometimes has problem expressing itself to the Western world that projects what’s going on in Syria and Iraq to the rest of the Middle East countries.
I ask the government, who will speak for you? If, as a Christian, I explain how it’s possible to coexist peacefully with Islam, the world will listen. We’re willing to speak in their name, but the seminary is instrumental for that possibility.
Would you say the government is trying to asphyxiate the Ecumenical Patriarchate?
There are many restrictions. For example, by law, the successor of Bartholomew has to be a Turkish citizen. How can we guarantee this when we have no seminary? Many Greek Orthodox that were born here left Turkey in the 70s. My whole family left and I came back, but I’m an exception. How can a world leader be appointed with these restrictions?
Let me give you the example of the Patriarchate of Alexandria, in Egypt. They have no such restriction. And when the Synod elects someone as patriarch, the government gives them the Egyptian citizenship and that’s it. Something similar happened here with Patriarch Athenagoras.
He was archbishop in America. When the Synod elected him head of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, he flew in the presidential airplane and when he landed, a government official was waiting for him at the airport with the Turkish passport.
Erdogan has done many things to help us, like giving passports to all the bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that wanted to have a double citizenship. This means that we now have 21 metropolitans and bishops with Turkish citizenship and it gives us a breath. But this isn’t a long-term solution; it’s a band-aid.
Is there something the world can do to help you?
Since we’re a universal Church with its head here, any troubles or dangers that we might face reflect to the whole world. We’re happy that our brothers and sisters around the globe follow the situation of the human rights in Turkey. World leaders, when they visit Turkey, come and visit His Holiness.
The situation of the Patriarchate is seen as a human rights indicator in Turkey, and Halki is a main aspect of that indication. Every report published on human rights in the Western world includes a paragraph about the seminary. They think of us, and they pray for us as we pray for them. The Ecumenical Patriarch, when traveling around the world, is given the status of state leader, even when he’s not.
The international community is doing enough for us and we’re happy for it.