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Acton Institute reports on “A Patriarch in Dire Straits”

February 13, 2008

A Patriarch in Dire Straits

by John Couretas

With the release of a new book, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I — best known as the Orthodox Church’s Green Patriarch for his environmental activism — offers a concise summary of the Eastern Christian tradition and views on a wide range of social issues.

The publication of Bartholomew’s “Encountering the Mystery” next month arrives at a time of deep crisis for the patriarchate, a crisis that has registered little interest among Europe’s secularized political classes or, for that matter, Christians outside the Orthodox Church. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, located in Istanbul on the historic East-West crossroads of the Bosporus Straits, has been suffering a slow asphyxiation for decades. And it is not at all certain that this ancient see of the Church, the living witness of a Byzantine Christianity that has proclaimed the Gospel since the establishment of Constantinople in the fourth century — indeed since the time of the Apostles — will survive.

Bartholomew, a Turkish citizen, presides over a flock of Orthodox Christians that has shrunk to 3,000-4,000 members, one of the smallest religious minorities in a land of 72 million people that is 99 percent Muslim. The other constitutionally recognized minorities include some 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians and 23,000 Jews. But there are significant minorities of non-Muslim believers, including Syriac Orthodox, Baha’is, Protestants, and Roman Catholics.

Who will follow?

By law, Bartholomew must choose a successor who is a Turkish citizen and thus subject to a constitution that enshrines the modern, secularist principles formulated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the national hero who established the modern state of Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. But the patriarchate has long been viewed with suspicion by Turkish nationalists who see it as a “foreign” institution that often sided with Greece in the centuries-old, warring rivalry with Turkey.

In 1971, the Turkish government shut down Halki, the partriarchal seminary on Heybeliada Island in the Sea of Marmara. And it has progressively confiscated Orthodox Church properties, including the expropriation of the Buyukada Orphanage for Boys on the Prince’s Islands (and properties belonging to an Armenian Orthodox hospital foundation). These expropriations happen as religious minorities report problems associated with opening, maintaining, and operating houses of worship. Many services are held in secret. Indeed, Turkey is a place where proselytizing for Christian and even Muslim minority sects can still get a person hauled into court on charges of “publicly insulting Turkishness.” This law has also been used against journalists and writers, including novelist Orhan Pamuk for mentioning the Armenian genocide and Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds.

In a 2005 report on the Halki Seminary controversy, the Turkish think tank TESEV examined what it called the “the illogical legal grounds” behind the closing and how it violates the terms of the 1923 peace treaty of Lausanne signed by Turkey and Europe’s great powers. TESEV concluded that “the contemporary level of civil society and global democratic principles established by the state, are in further contradiction with the goal to become an EU member.” And, because of its inability to train Turkish candidates for the priesthood, TESEV warned: “It is highly probable that the Patriarchate will not be able to find Patriarch candidates within 30-40 years and thus, will naturally fade away.”

The patriarch’s solution to Turkey’s problems — and that of religious minorities — is to move the country to a more Western model of tolerance and religious freedom by bringing it into the European Union. “It is my conviction that the accession of Turkey to the European Union would benefit all of its citizens, including the minority communities of the country,” Bartholomew writes in his new book. “For Turkey would be required to make significant, indeed substantial modifications to its legislation, adhering to the principles of other European nations.”

The EU Card

Unfortunately, recent history is not so favorable to this view. It is a doubtful proposition that the EU mandarins in Brussels, who resisted any effort to mention the Christian roots of European civilization in a failed draft constitution, would come rushing to the aid of the Patriarchate and other religious minorities. Tellingly, Turkish authorities still refuse to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, which claimed 1.5 million lives at the hands of the Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I. Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Mesrob II, also facing a shortage of clergy, is pleading with the Turkish government for permission to open a seminary.

In its 2007 report on religious freedom in Turkey, the U.S. State Department reported a number of religiously motivated killings, stabbings and beatings of Christians and their religious leaders, along with attacks on church properties. In April, three members of a Protestant church in Malatya were tortured and killed in a Christian publishing office. In February 2006, Roman Catholic priest Andrea Santoro was gunned down in his church along the Black Sea coast. Witnesses said the killer screamed “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” before firing two bullets into Santoro’s back as he kneeled to pray. Death threats made to American Christians are widely noted.

Indeed, Turkish society itself is deeply conflicted about its secularizing principles and a resurgence of Islamist sentiment. In the past week, major cities have seen street demonstrations triggered by a proposal to lift the ban on Muslim women wearing the traditional headscarf at universities. Writing in Hurriyet, the Turkish daily, commentator Bekir Coskun asked if lifting the ban on the headscarf was a step toward the Arab culture of the middle ages. “Would someone please explain to me what kind of ‘nationalism’ this is, turning the most beautiful culture in the world, a culture that exists in some of the best geography in the world, towards Arabistan?” Coskun asked.

Unfortunately, the gravity of the situation facing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and other religious minorities in Turkey hasn’t much moved the passions of America’s opinion shapers.

In a Jan. 25 review of Bartholomew’s “Encountering the Mystery” in the Wall Street Journal, Charlotte Allen dismisses the book as a collection of “bromides” and “platitudes” designed to appeal to secular progressives (except, presumably, for the parts on monasticism, prayer and theology). She mocks the Patriarch’s writings as simply “yadda yadda yadda.” Allen also describes Bartholomew as a sort of “pope,” an abysmally misapplied term for him, as anyone familiar with Eastern Orthodox tradition understands. But, helpfully, she announces that Orthodoxy “is not dead yet.” You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from 300 million Orthodox Christians all over the world.

People concerned about religious freedom, and those groups established to promote religious tolerance and freedom, should raise the public’s awareness about what is happening to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and other religious minorities in Turkey. A growing movement to establish civil society think tanks in Turkey should be encouraged as one of an important means of building up that country’s ability to work out its own conflicts — on its own terms — about religious freedom. With that, perhaps, respect for the rights of religious minorities will soon become a defining element of “Turkishness.”

John Couretas is the Acton Institute’s communications director.

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