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The Unceasing Mission for Religious Equality in Turkey

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The historic city of Berlin will host an historic international conference on religious freedom this week. Chiefly organized by the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America, the conference's theme is "Tearing Down Walls: Achieving Religious Equality in Turkey."

The December 4th and 5th conference follows the seminal sessions held in November 2010 at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Almost 50 speakers -- some of them well known, all of them influential -- will address participants. The presenters represent a diverse cross-section of fields and are sure to offer penetrating analysis on the current status of Turkey's society, as well as actionable intelligence for potential next steps.

Among the speakers (albeit via video) will be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, an enduring and steadfast supporter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Before the conference, however, on November 30th, the Orthodox Church celebrated the Feast of Saint Andrew, the First-called of the Apostles. The brother of Saint Peter, St. Andrew initially preached the Gospel in Byzantium and Thrace. It is he who founded the Mother Church of Constantinople, now in the Phanar district of Istanbul.

From its ascension to become the centre of Christianity, its glorious days as the spiritual nucleus of the Byzantine Empire, to its four-century long struggle to persevere under Ottoman rule, the Ecumenical Patriarchate was, and will always be, an unquenchable beacon of faith, hope and love.

Notwithstanding what seem to be deliberate delays and obfuscations from senior Turkish politicians to avoid conferring full religious equality to some of their own citizens, the international community has not relented on efforts to push for reforms.

Just last month, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, chaired by Ed Royce (R-CA), unanimously agreed to the following Resolution put forward by Gus Bilirakis (R-FL): Calling upon the Government of Turkey to facilitate the reopening of the Ecumenical Patriarchate's Theological School of Halki without condition or further delay.

The continued closure of Halki, which was forcibly shut down by the government in 1971, is one of the top five issues of concern and will be an area of focus in Berlin. His Eminence Metropolitan Elpidophoros of Bursa, the Abbot of the Halki Holy Trinity Patriarchal and Stavropeghial Monastery, is a conference presenter.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has previously shown at least superficial support for Halki's reopening, last month insisted on the need for a "reciprocity principle," namely, that the Government of Greece first open two mosques in Athens -- a false equivalence seemingly premised on the erroneous notion that the Phanar somehow formulates Greek government policy.

It is conceivable, though, as some watchers of Turkey contend, that the real reason Halki remains shuttered is to preclude pressure to lessen the government's control over Islamic education. As Andrew Finkel, a foreign correspondent in Istanbul for over 20 years, wrote in the International New York Times, "Turkey ... may want to become more liberal toward its religious minorities, but not at the risk of tolerating more diversity within the Muslim mainstream."

In a functioning democracy, however, potential challenges from one segment of the population are not used as a cover to restrict human rights and the freedoms of others.

The restrictions, it should be noted, are not only on Orthodox Christian citizens of Turkey but also levied against other religious communities such as Alevi Muslims, Armenians, Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Syriacs.

The unified -- and unifying -- approach the American Archons have used to drive the conference's agenda is what makes the upcoming gathering in Berlin potentially transformational.

By bringing together key political figures, human rights advocates, academics, theological leaders, members of the media and representatives of minority communities, the potential to share information and best practices in order to secure tangible outcomes going forward is immense.

As Turkey's society continues to transition, its leaders in Ankara and elsewhere would profit from paying close attention this week to the goings-on in Germany's capital.