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Obama calls for religious freedom for Ecumenical Patriarchate

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has voiced his support for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, calling on the Turkish government to grant religious freedom for the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Obama’s remarks came in an interview with the Greek bureau of Voice of America, Greek media reported over the weekend.

“[Obama] called on Turkey to give religious freedom to the institution, return the property to the patriarchate and allow the opening of the theological school on the island of Halki,” Greek daily To Vima reported.

Ankara does not recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s international role as the spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians worldwide. It rejects his use of the title “ecumenical,” or universal, arguing instead that the patriarch is merely the spiritual leader of Istanbul’s dwindling Orthodox community.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul dates back to the 1,100-year-old Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, in 1453.

Turkey has also been resisting EU pressure to reopen the Halki Seminary on the island of Heybeliada near Istanbul, which was closed to new students in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control. The Theological School once trained generations of Greek Orthodox leaders, including the current Patriarch. The Seminary remained open until 1985, when the last five students graduated. An ethnic Greek but a Turkish citizen, Bartholomew says the Orthodox community could soon die out in Turkey if the Seminary is not reopened.

This article appears in Today’s Zaman.

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