The chalkboards are empty. The old wooden desks, thick with the carvings of students sit idle. There is just one thing lacking at the Theological School of Halki: students.
Sitting atop a hill on Heybeliada Island just off the coast of Istanbul, the serenity of the closed Eastern Orthodox monastery gives no hint that the facility has been the site of political wrangling for decades. Founded in 1844, the seminary survived wars and revolutions before it was closed by the Turkish government in 1971 during a debate over the country’s secular institution. Since then, international pressure has mounted, and Turkey’s small Greek Orthodox community has threatened legal action to open the site.
Halki is closed to the general public but occasionally visited by pilgrims and foreign delegations. A skeleton crew of around a dozen maintains the church, library and classrooms. Many of the classrooms have been left largely in the state they were when classes were halted in 1971. Turkish courts at the time considered the monastery to be in violation of Turkish rulings regarding a secular education.
The closure of the Halki Seminary has been a sticking point in U.S.-Turkish relations for decades. Succeeding U.S. administrations including that of President Obama have called for the reopening of the seminary. In June, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution introduced by Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Florida) insisting that Turkey both reopen the seminary and end harassment based on religion in the country.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party attracts many of Turkey’s most pious voters who often run afoul of Turkey’s French-styled secular government. The party is known more commonly by its Turkish initials as the AK Party which also conveniently spells the Turkish word for “white”. Indeed the party attempts to convey a sense of openness and transparency, and since coming to power in 2002, it has generally pursued a more open policy towards Turkey’s minority groups.
In March, the Turkish government signaled that the seminary would eventually be reopened. Acting on that announcement, Religious Affairs Directorate President Mehmet Görmez met with the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew on July 6th and gave his full support to the reopening of the site. While the meeting led some to speculate that a change of the status was imminent, no timetable was given.
Priests and other staff who I spoke with during a recent tour of Halki were doubtful that it would open soon. They noted that in the past, rumors of the facility’s reopening had ultimately proved false, for example in 2010, when Patriarch Bartholomew asserted that it would likely be opened by the end of that year.
The Greek government also remains actively engaged in the matter. In June, the country’s new Foreign Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos made Turkey the destination of his first trip abroad. During his visit, the top diplomat met with Patriach Bartholomew to discuss the issue of the Halki Seminary.
“I have the impression the Turkish government will open the Theological School of Halki eventually but, they are waiting to use it as a bargaining chip at some point,” said a former member of the Greek foreign ministry who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Indeed, the AK Party has faced objections to reopening the seminary from the MHP Party, which is traditionally closely associated with Turkish ultra-nationalism. For many Turks the issue should be tied to the status of the historic Muslim minority in Greece’s Western Thrace with a population of over 100,000. Greece also boasts well over a quarter of a million Muslim immigrants. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested a compromise: “Halki seminary should be opened, but also a mosque should be opened in Athens.”
Following the 1923 signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, Turkey and Greece were obliged to exchange their Greek and Muslim populations. Roughly 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks and a small number of Armenians were forced to leave Turkey. Conversely, half a million Greek Muslims, mostly of Turkish origin, were forced to emigrate from Greece. The treaty also created a complex system of reciprocity requiring both states to respect the religious freedom of religious minorities.
A few thousand Greeks, Jews, Armenians still live on Heybeliada and the surrounding islands, which are considered part of greater Istanbul. The seminar, located on the island’s ‘Hill of Hope’ has traditionally served as the main seminary for the Sacred See of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Nearly a thousand students completed the seminary program on the island between 1844 and 1971. Of these 11 went on to become ecumenical bishops, including the current Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who in 2008 was listed in Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People.
The Eastern Orthodox Church in which the Patriarch of Constantinople is considered “first among equals” has 300 million followers, making it the world’s second largest Christian church after Catholicism.