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Fordham University symposium focuses on religious freedom concerns for the Ecumenical Patriarchate

George Demacopoulos, Fordham University associate professor of theology, speaks on the religious freedom issues surrounding the Ecumenical Patriarchate. (Photo by D. Panagos)

His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, National Commander Dr. Anthony Limberakis, members of the National Council together with Archons, scholars and legal experts gathered together at New York’s Fordham University for a symposium that examined the core issues threatening the Mother Church of Constantinople from the perspective of international law. The Sept. 16 conference “Religious Freedom in Turkey: The Case of the Ecumenical Patriarchate,” featured discussion about efforts to end the persecution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Mr. George Demacopoulos, Fordham University associate professor of theology and co-founding director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Program, spoke in depth of the seizure of property by the Turkish governments; the closure of Patriarchal seminaries while its prelates are taunted by extremists who demonstrate outside the Ecumenical Patriarchate; and His All Holiness, who is denied of his title as “Ecumenical” Patriarch.

“… The [Ecumenical] title was embedded in Roman law as early as the sixth century because Christians throughout the world understood that the Patriarch of Constantinople played an international and transnational role in the leadership of the Christian community,” explains Demacopoulos.

Mr. Emanuel Demos, general counsel for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, briefly discussed some of the persecution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate throughout the years, such as the pogrom of 1955, riots driven primarily by Islamic fanaticism that targeted the Greek population of Istanbul with the intent of driving non-Muslims from Turkey, and the closing of the Orthodox Theological School of Halki in 1971 by Turkish authorities.

In July 2008, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that the 1964 evacuation, closing and subsequent taking of a historical orphanage, once owned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, was unlawful.

“Even the name of the case was significant–‘Ecumenical Patriarchate vs. Turkey,'” Demos said. “In the opening paragraph of the case, they indicate the Patriarchate is ecumenical and ‘unites the Orthodox community,’ shooting down the things the Turkish government has denied.”

Demos said Turkey’s 2005 application to the European Union (EU) could be a positive development for the Orthodox Christian community, as the country would have to adhere to the EU’s religious protections.

Panelist Ruti G. Teitel, the Ernst C. Steifel Professor of Comparative Law at New York Law School, said the move also could bring risks.

“What I’ve seen in looking at issues of religious minorities more broadly in the European Court is that the court tends to be more conservative in its rulings and upholds whatever the state regulation requires,” Teitel said. “The European Courts have justified civil liberties in a number of cases in countries such as France and Switzerland, where Islamic women were banned from wearing head scarves in public as a way to maintain order and avoid giving preference to any religion.”

“There are a number of countries in Europe that … have this idea that public domains need to remain antiseptic and free of religious symbols,” she added. “My concern is that Europe, because of the specter of Islam, will end up coming out with a case law that is … more along the lines of those countries.”

His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will visit Fordham in late October during his Apostolic visit to the United States. His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios attended the conference and thanked organizers for “shedding light on a complex issue.”

The Archbishop recalled attempts by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to convince Turkish officials to reopen the Halki seminary. This past April, President Barack Obama also urged the prime minister of Turkey to reopen the seminary. “It was a nice meeting. It went so beautifully,” he said, “but then there was a unanimous decision against it, which, to me, indicates the unpredictability on the part of the Turkish government.”

The conference was sponsored by the Law School’s Institute on Religion, Law and Lawyer’s Work and Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Program.

“The questions we are exploring tonight are of particular interest and concern, not only for the Orthodox community, but for anyone who would like to see the protection and growth of religious freedom, anywhere in the world,” said Amy Uelman, director of the institute.


View photos of the Fordham University Symposium

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