The issue of the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate and its freedom in Turkey has assumed a new prominence in deliberations on the nation’s admission to the European Union.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament adopted on January 26 the draft of a strategy report regarding its relations with present and possible future candidates for membership. The amended article 10 of the report deals with issues of fundamental rights and freedoms, and also asks Turkey to recognize the “ecumenical title” of Patriarch Bartholomew, according to the Turkish Daily News (Jan. 27).
This represents one more indication of a growing emphasis on issues related to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with its headquarters in Istanbul. While there are only a few thousand Greek faithful left in Turkey, the Patriarchate puts emphasis on its universal (ecumenical) role serving the Orthodox diaspora in non-Orthodox countries. But Turkish authorities have always expressed the viewpoint that the role of the Patriarch is to take care of Orthodox believers in Turkey.
In recent years, Turkish nationalist groups have revived agitation against the Patriarchate (including demonstrations in front of the Patriarchate): they are now asking for the transfer of the Patriarchate to Greece and are collecting signatures on a petition for that purpose, despite the historical significance of the presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch in a city which was once called Constantinople. At the same time, the Ecumenical Patriarch himself (who holds Turkish citizenship) has seized opportunities provided by the negotiation process between the European Union and Turkey to express much more publicly his concerns and expectations.
At a conference on the dialogue of civilizations in September 2005, he regretted lasting Turkish “prejudices” against the Patriarchate. In October 2005, at a meeting of Orthodox Churches with European Christian Democrat MPs in Istanbul, he has complained about the Turkish Education Ministry not giving permission to reopen the Orthodox seminary of Halki, which has been closed since 1971.
He also deplored the Turkish “allergy” toward his ecumenical title. A leading representative of the current ruling party (AKP, with Islamic roots) answered in conciliatory tones and assured that the current government would be willing to act – but nothing has happened since, remarks Austrian journalist Pia de Simony in an article published in the February issue of Glaube in der 2. Welt.
There is no doubt that the pressure from the European Union will grow, Simony writes. Religious freedom will be presented to the Turkish government as a key prerequisite for European integration. Pressure will not only come from Europe: on Dec. 5, 2005, a US State Department spokesman explained that the United States recognized the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul as having ecumenical status, Turkish NTV reported (Dec. 6).
— By Jean-Francois Mayer