The Halki Theological Seminary was, until its closure by the Turkish authorities in 1971, the main school of theology of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It was based on the island of Halki, called Heybeliada by the Turks, in the straits between European and Asian Turkey. The seminary is housed on the site of the ruined Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which was founded by Patriarch Photius I. In 1844, Patriarch Germanos IV converted the ruined monastery into a school of theology. All the buildings except for the chapel were destroyed by an earthquake in June 1894, but were rebuilt by architect Periklis Fotiadis in 1896. Numerous Eastern Orthodox scholars, theologians, priests, bishops, and patriarchs graduated from Halki, including the late Archbishop Iakovos, the present Patriarch Bartholomew I and my Dad. Many of them are buried on the grounds of the school. The seminary includes the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, sports and recreational facilities, dormitories, an infirmary, a hospice, offices, and the school's library with its historic collection of books, journals, and manuscripts. The students at Halki included not only a large number of native born Greeks, but Eastern Orthodox Christians from around the world, giving the school an international character.
The seminary was closed by a Turkish law requiring state control of all higher education involved in religious and military training. While there are other Orthodox seminaries around the world, none can match Halki's stature. Halki has received international attention in recent years. President Bill Clinton visited Halki on his visit to Turkey in 1999 and urged Turkish President Suleiman Demirel to allow the reopening of the school. In October 1998, both Houses of the United States Congress passed resolutions that supported the reopening of Halki. The European Union has also raised the issue as part of its negotiations over Turkish accession to the EU.
My father returned there a few years ago, before his health started failing, after an absence of forty-five years. His bittersweet visit to the site of his fondest youthful memories elicited a profound sadness, which he relayed to me upon his return, at seeing a site of Orthodox Christian study for more than a thousand years lapse into a quiet oblivion. The school's desks are dusted, the buildings maintained and ancient manuscripts carefully preserved. Everything is as it was except for the lack of students. The closing of the Halki Theological School was a blow to the spiritual heart of Orthodoxy. Without the seminary, the Orthodox are denied a center for theological study and clerical training in what was the ancient Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Many Orthodox fear this could one day leave them without an Istanbul-based patriarch, who is considered the "first among equals" in the world's Eastern Orthodox hierarchy.
Turkey held sway over the Orthodox world for hundreds of years. A 1923 rule established that all ecumenical patriarchs must be Turkish citizens. That was the condition for allowing the patriarchate to remain in Istanbul under the Treaty of Lausanne, which also opened the way for a massive exchange of ethnic populations between Greece and Turkey. The once vast ethnic Greek population in Istanbul, and Turkey's Aegean and Black Sea coasts began to evaporate after the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Today, less than 3,000 remain, leaving just a handful of Turkish-born Orthodox clerics able to someday succeed the 63-year-old Bartholomew. Options for future patriarchs will be severely limited. In Turkey, however, any issue involving religion is extremely sensitive and confronts EU demands for greater religious freedom. The secular republic that succeeded the Ottoman Empire in 1923 is in the throes of an internal conflict between Islamists, in this overwhelmingly Muslim country which includes the ruling party and Turkey's civilian leadership and the secularists led by the guardians of Kemalism, the military. Women are barred from wearing Islamic head scarves in schools and government offices. Compulsory primary school education was extended to eight years in part to limit the reach of private, Islamic-oriented high schools. No independent religious schools are allowed for higher degrees, which forced the closure of the Halki seminary. Turkish officials strongly object to any reference to the patriarch as "ecumenical," meaning global or universal, or loosening the requirements that he be a Turkish citizen. They worry such moves could weaken Turkish control of the Patriarchate. According to Turkish secularists, amending the religious education rules for the Orthodox could open the door for Islamic fundamentalists and other groups to seek the same privileges.
In January of this year, a Turkish ultra-nationalist group known as the Grey Wolves, gathered in Izmir, formerly, Smyrna, to symbolically decapitate, decimate and burn in effigy, Patriarch Bartholomew. They placed his smoldering image in a small boat and cast it out into the harbor. Perhaps they were trying to remind us all of the fate of Patriarch Grigorios V. In 1821, when Greeks revolted against the Ottoman Empire, the Patriarch was hanged at the gate of his own palace and his body dragged through the city and thrown into the Bosporus. Modern Turkey is often touted by many of my fellow Americans as a secular country that should serve as a shining democratic example for other Muslim countries. Personally, I find it abhorrent that a country that calls itself European still cannot give its religious minorities a modicum of religious freedom, especially in light of its appalling history. Equally disappointing is the apathy and ignorance often displayed by the Greek-American community which has failed miserably in bringing the issue of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (under whose jurisdiction the Greek Orthodox Church in North America falls) to the attention of the American people and our political leaders. This failure is egregious and the need to address the failure compelling. We can start to rectify this failure by writing our elected representatives and signing the petition.