February 17, 2019
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Greek PM, Orthodox patriarch urge Turkey to reopen closed Istanbul seminary

Istanbul, Feb 6 (EFE).- The prime minister of Greece and the Eastern Orthodox Church's ecumenical patriarch on Wednesday urged the Turkish government to allow an iconic theological school on an island near Istanbul to reopen, almost half a century after it was shut down by authorities.

During their visit to the island of Heybeliada on the Sea of Marmara, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Bartholomew I of Constantinople expressed their shared hope that the once-revered Halki seminary would soon be able to again open its doors to religious students sharing the Orthodox faith.

"Unfortunately, now it's closed and we celebrate its birthday on the sixth of February without any classes nor teachers," said the spiritual leader, who was ordained a priest at the Halki seminary before its closure in 1971.

"We have our hopes set on Turkey; we believe that the day it is reopened is not too distant," Bartholomew added.

Meanwhile, Tsipras declared himself "moved and happy to be on the historic island of Halki" and described the trip as a "harbinger of hope."

"I hope that in my next visit, I'll come here to reopen the seminary together with (Turkish President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan," Tsipras added.

The Greek PM had arrived in the neighboring country the previous day, when he met for talks with Erdogan, and earlier on Wednesday visited Istanbul's stunning Hagia Sophia cathedral.

Tsipras and Bartholomew planted a tree in the gardens of the Hagia Triada (Holy Trinity) Monastery, which used to host the seminary until the Turkish constitutional court ruled that private education was unconstitutional – unless the private college was affiliated to a state-run university – in 1971, thus forcing the school's closure.

The seminary was founded in 1844 and became the most important theological institution adhering to the Orthodox Catholic Church, a variant of Christianity that still dominates the eastern Mediterranean region.

The European Union has long called for the seminary's reopening, especially within the framework of negotiations on Turkey's accession to the bloc over the past few decades.

Former presidents of the United States Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have both also lobbied Ankara to let the school resume its activity.

One of the main obstacles, however, is that such a move would necessitate a constitutional amendment that would require the overwhelming support of lawmakers in the majority-Muslim nation.

Another hurdle is posed by Turkey's own diplomatic demands towards Greece, the most salient of which is the dispute over the issue of religious self-governance for the Muslim minority living in the northern Greek region of Thrace, where, according to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, ethnic Turks are allowed to follow certain aspects of Koranic law.

While Athens insists that the muftis (scholars of Islamic law who issue rulings on spiritual matters) should be appointed by Greek authorities, Ankara wants them to be chosen through assemblies.

"I told Tsipras: 'you resolve the problems of the muftis in Thrace and I'll resolve this,'" Erdogan said following Tuesday's bilateral meeting.

Tsipras, on the other hand, rejected the notion of letting the seminary become a bargaining chip in a negotiation and said that every government had the obligation to defend the interests of its own minorities while respecting the principles of religious freedom.

iut-lvm/dl/jt

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