Two weeks ago, Turkey's Directorate General for Foundations (VGM) announced a decision to return 469 acres of woodlands back to its rightful owner, the Agia Triada Monastery Foundation. This was the latest step in the process of returning properties that the Turkish state expropriated from non-Muslim minorities, following a 2011 law passed by the Turkish parliament mandating that confiscated property be returned to its rightful owners. This particular property transfer was especially noteworthy because it is associated with the Halki Theological Seminary.
The Halki Theological Seminary opened its doors in 1844. The seminary was established to meet the educational needs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul as well as of the Orthodox Church in general. Since its establishment, the seminary produced 930 graduates, including 343 who became bishops and 12 who became patriarchs. Halki was in fact explicitly protected against closure by the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, under a provision granting minority rights to institutions. Nonetheless, the Turkish government closed down Halki -- the Greek Orthodox Church's only educational institution in Turkey for training its religious leadership -- in 1971. It has remained closed ever since.
The reopening of Halki should be a matter of global urgency. Under Turkish law the Ecumenical Patriarch -- the leader of the world's 300+ million Orthodox Christians -- has to be a Turkish citizen. Given that the Orthodox population in Turkey has dwindled to a couple thousand, and very few of them are Orthodox clerics, candidates for the next Ecumenical Patriarch have been narrowed to very few possibilities. The historic seat of the one of the world's largest and oldest Churches is being slowly pushed towards extinction.
For decades, Halki remained closed because of the paranoia of Turkish nationalists who viewed the very existence of the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul as a base for spies working to undermine the Turkish Republic. Furthermore, they maintained that the opening of the Seminary would only educate new enemies of Turkey who would act as agents for the Greek government -- as if Greece were a threat to Turkey. In 2003, this nationalist paranoia appeared to have given way to a more tolerant and open minded approach by the new Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who declared after a meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch that the reopening of Halki was an issue that for him personally "should not be a problem." Indeed, a flurry of comments by Turkish officials, major Turkish newspapers, and Turkish television reports in 2003-2004 gave the impression that the reopening of Halki was imminent. Nearly ten years later, Halki remains closed.
With the degree of both internal and external pressure on the Turkish government to reopen Halki, the fact that the Erdoğan keeps it shut down is baffling. Turkey's top Muslim cleric has recently called for the reopening of Halki, and the country's top newspapers have both called for the seminary's reopening and have questioned why it has not occurred. President Obama, who has established a close relationship with Prime Minister Erdoğan, has long been vocal on the issue. As a senator, he signed a letter to President Bush calling for the reopening of Halki. During the 2008 campaign, he issued a policy paper reiterating that call. At the beginning of his first term, in a speech to the Turkish Parliament, the president called for the seminary's reopening. Last March, the president -- with Erdoğan at his side -- announced Turkey's decision to reopen Halki. It seems that the president has found more willing partners in Republicans over the fiscal cliff than he has found in the Turkish government over the issue of Halki.
Many commentators see in Turkey a democratic model for the countries of the Arab Spring. In one critical respect Turkey is a bad example. In Egypt, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Christian minorities are in danger of extinction. As these Christian minorities faced religious rights violations and violence on a daily basis in 2012, their model in Turkey backslid on religious rights issues, so much so that the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom designated Turkey as a "country of particular concern," the label for the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.
The reopening of Halki would not necessarily make Turkey that much better a model for religious freedom -- it still denies its religious minorities legal personality, and it restricts who can serve as the Ecumenical Patriarch (Can you imagine the protests if Silvio Berlusconi had final say on who served as Pope? Isn't the world already outraged at China's attempt to determine who will be the next Dalai Lama?). Yet reopening Halki is a necessary first step to establishing a new paradigm for religious tolerance and for repairing tense relations between Christianity and Islam. The Orthodox Church has kept the seminary in immaculate condition, and could immediately begin operating it as soon as the Turkish government approved.
In Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, an established world leader on the most pressing issues of the day, someone deeply committed to interfaith dialogue, and a cheerleader for Turkey's accession to the EU, Erdoğan has no better partner in bringing about this new paradigm. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Samuel Huntington's landmark article "The Clash of Civilizations?" Ankara must seize this opportunity to begin the move away from civilizational, cultural and religious clashes. Students are ready to walk through the doors of Halki seminary Mr. Erdoğan, just turn that key.