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Halki seminary: the Istanbul institution at the heart of a political and religious feud

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Halki seminary: the Istanbul institution at the heart of a political and religious feud
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REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis
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The long-running international campaign to re-open a theological school in Turkey is set for a major boost this week.

Greece's prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, will visit Orthodox Halki seminary during a two-day diplomatic trip to the country.

It was closed down by the Turkish state in 1971 and experts say Tsipras' presence there will be hugely symbolic.

His visit will put the campaign to re-open the seminary — considered the last stand for Christianity in Turkey — back on the map.

That is especially important in the era of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which has moved Turkey away from its tradition of separating church and state.

Turkey is now thought to be as much as 99% Muslim, though Constantinople, now Istanbul, served as the epicentre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for over a thousand years.

What do we know about the Orthodox Halki seminary?

Halki seminary was the main school of theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church's Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople until the Turkish parliament enacted a law banning private higher education institutions in 1971 when the school closed.

The seminary is located on the site of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, founded by Patriarch Photius I almost a thousand years before the foundation of the theological school.

Τhe Theological School of Halki was founded on 1 October 1844 on the island of Halki, the second-largest of the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara, which can be seen from Istanbul’s shores on a clear day.

At its height, Halki’s historic library contained over 120,000 books, journals and manuscripts. The facilities on the island include the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, sports and recreational institutions, dormitories, an infirmary, a hospice and offices, which are all thought to be ready to use if the seminary was opened again.

There have been 990 graduates of the theological school and many have become priests, bishops, archbishops, scholars, and patriarchs.

The campaign to re-open the seminary

The international campaign to re-open this theological school is entering its 40th year and has received support from numerous western leaders, and has become intertwined with discussions of the possibility of Turkey joining the European Union.

In a speech before the Turkish Parliament on 6 April 2009, US President Barack Obama re-affirmed the need for Turkey to allow the re-opening of the Halki seminary.

He said: “Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people."

Christians and their history in Turkey

Following the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922, many Christians living in Turkey were sent to Greece and many Muslims living in Greece were sent back to Turkey, even though they had lived in their respective communities for generations.

“The one exception to this was Constantinople,” said Andrew Louth, emeritus professor of patristic and Byzantine studies at Durham University in the UK.

However, Professor Louth said that an increase in verbal harassment of Christians in 1950s Turkey led to a number of them leaving the country for good.

Why has the seminary not been re-opened?

There is no official reason why the school has not been allowed to reopen.

What we know is, far-right party MHP, which is in coalition with AKP, is strongly against the idea of reopening the school.

Semih Yalcin, deputy leader of the nationalist party told Anadolu news agency: “The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s request to reopen the school isn’t an innocent educational demand. The government (AKP) should consider this demand as part of the principle of our national sovereignty.”

It is also unclear whether Tsipras will use his visit on Wednesday to call for it to open its doors again.

Nevertheless, Professor Louth told Euronews Tsipras' visit is enormously symbolic because it would affirm Greece’s support for continued requests the seminary is reopened.

It would also offer support to the few forgotten Orthodox Christians left in Turkey.

With the Turkish government wanting Greece to extradite Turkish soldiers accused of participating in the 2015 coup attempt and disputes between the two sides around Cyprus, any negotiations around the future of Halki will be multifaceted.

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