Earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc met with religious leaders, including Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, Chief Rabbi of Turkey Ishak Haleva, Armenian Archbishop Aram Ateşyan, Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Çetin and Simon Zazadze, who represented the Catholic Georgian Church. At a press conference following the meeting, Arinc averred that the government will move to amend Turkey's laws to allow the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary at Heybeli Island to be re-opened. The seminary was opened in 1844, but closed in 1971. The Greek Orthodoz Patriarchate has long argued that its re-opening is essential to the preservation of the church (see Jan. 10 post), and this was not the first time that government officials have made promises to re-open the seminary (see June 30 post). However, Arinc's statement might be more than a bit premature. Soon after Arinc's remarks, Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesperson Cemil Cicek said, "The Turkish constitution and related regulations do not make the opening of private religious schools possible. If you are going to introduce new rules regarding human rights and freedoms, you need to do it for all groups equally."
In addition to opening up Halki, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate seeks recognition of its ecumenical status, which Turkey has long denied. For Turkey, the Patriarchate represents Turkey's now tiny Greek minority (estimated at between 2,000-4,000 people). The Constitutional Court has blocked past efforts to recognize the Patriarchate as the ecumenical representative of the entire Greek Orthodox Church, and a local court has recently held the same finding in a decision that the Venice Commission declared this month to be inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights, namely Article 9 pertaining to freedom of religion. The issue of Halki and recongizing the Patriarchate as ecumenical all comes down to the Lausanne Treaty, which set up relations between Turkey, Greece, and their minorities at Turkey's founding in 1923.
At the heart of any reform is Lausanne's status in both Turkish and Greek law. In a bold and diplomatic resolution passed this January, the Parliamentary Committee of the Council of Europe (PACE) called on both Greece and Turkey to eschew Lausanne and recognize the supremacy of the European Convention of Human Rights as the appropriate framework in which to make policies related to minorities and minority rights. Arguing Lausanne to be outdated, the resolution calls on Turkey and Greece to deal with minorities as citizens of equal status and to drop the constant rhetoric of reciprocity (in line with Lausanne) inherent in both countries' discourses. Minorities in both Turkey and Greece have long fallen victim to the 1923 treaty, legal arguments both states have make about reciprocity going something like this: Greece treats their Turkish minority in Thrace badly, and so Turkey must as well, and vice-versa.
Bianet does an excellent job of laying out Turkey's homework on minority rights as given to it by the PACE. Importantly, the inclusion of criticism of Greece strengthened the reception of PACE's report, making it both palpatable and welcome to some Turkish politicians, policymakers, and opinion leaders. (In contrast, see the European Parliament's one-way criticism of Turkey in regard to Cyprus, which Hurriyet Daily News reported side-by-side with the PACE resolution. See also Feb. 17 post.)
Also passed by the PACE in January was the report, “Freedom of Religion and Other Human Rights for Mon-Muslim Minorities in Turkey and for the Muslim Minority in Thrace [Eastern Greece]," of French parliamentarian Michel Hunault. The report follows a tour of Turkey some visitors of PACE made in June of last year. Soon after the report was released, Turkey's Ambassador to the European Union Volkan Bozkir headed a 12-member delegation comprised of members from the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and local officials that met with Greek community leaders. Because of the continued importance of Lausanne, issues involving Turkey's Greek minority are handled by the Foreign Ministry, one of many recommendations the Venice Commission has said needs to be changed.
The most recent Council of Europe action -- the opinion by the Venice Commission -- follows January's PACE resolution and Hunault's report. Significantly, the report analyzes the legal dimensions of the Treaty of Lausanne and, though stating its subordinance to the European Convention on Human Rights, finds no legal basis in Lausanne by which Turkey can justify its refusal to recognize the Patriarchate as ecumenical. Whether the Commission's decision will help the government change current law and navigate around exisiting Turkish case law on the subject remains to be seen, but its unequivocal statement that Lausanne does not limit the Turkish government from recognizing Bartholomew's title will not ring weakly in the ears of those who are listening, however limited their number. From the Commission's opinion as relayed by Today's Zaman:
“The argument appears to be that the Patriarchate was only allowed to remain in Istanbul on the condition that it would shed its ecumenical status. This argument cannot be supported for several reasons,” it said, listing those reasons: “First, even assuming that there was a conflict between the ECHR and the provisions of the Lausanne Treaty the latter does not prevail over the first … Second, there is nothing on the ‘ecumenical’ nature of the Patriarchate in the provisions of the treaty itself, which do not mention the Patriarchate at all … Third, recourse to the preparatory work of the Lausanne Treaty or the circumstances of its conclusion as supplementary means of interpretation (Article 32 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties) do not lead to a different conclusion.” The commission concluded, “The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne therefore in no way limits the right of the Patriarchate to use the title ‘ecumenical’.”The Venice Commission's "Opinion on the Legal Status of Religious Communities in Turkey and the Right of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Istanbul to use the Adjective 'Ecumenical,'" is not limited to the Patriarch, but the Greek minority in Turkey as a whole, and came at the behest of the PACE following the visit by the PACE delegation last June. For the full opinion, click here.
CORRECTION (3/22) -- Halki was shut down in 1971 following a Constitutional Court decision that annulled sections of the law governing private universites. All private universities were faced with either nationalization or closure . The Patriarchate chose not to nationalize and the seminary closed.
UPDATE I (3/25) -- Deputy Prime Minister Huseyin Celik discusses the persecution of Greeks and the status of the Patriarchate in an interview with Today's Zaman. He also questions the Greek Turks status as a minority under Lausanne.
Serious injustices were done to all these groups during the single-party era in Turkey; however, the injustices done to the non-Muslims were more severe. The wealth tax was a disgrace. The closure of the Greek seminary was a great shame. The Sept. 6-7 incidents were an inhumane conspiracy that humiliated Turkey in the eyes of the world. The alienated villagers were unable to enter Ankara’s city center until 1946. The violation of the rights of the humiliated Alevis, Kurds and the pious have continued until today.I wonder if this interview would have run in Zaman (the Turkish edition) . . .
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We have been having ‘ecumenical’ debates for a long time. Is Bartholomew ecumenical or not? It’s none of our business. Why do Muslims debate the world leader of the Orthodox community, why do they want to be decision-makers regarding this issue? Let the Orthodox community decide on this. If they see İstanbul Fener Patriarch Bartholomew as ecumenical, do we have any right to debate this as nnon-Orthodox people? Let the Orthodox people decide of their own free will.
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In my view, none of our 72 million citizens should be treated as a minority,” Çelik said. Indicating that believers of the three monotheistic religions along with many other religious communities lived in peace during the Ottoman Empire, Çelik said the state approached all religions and beliefs with tolerance back then. “The slogan that reflected this in the Ottoman Empire was ‘Diversity in unity,’ a slogan which is now promoted by the Council of Europe. The two cultures met at the same point centuries later.