[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recently said on American TV that he feels “crucified” in Turkey. And many Turks got upset with him.
His All Holiness is right, though, to complain about the Turkish Republic. The latter has kept the Halki Seminary, the only institution to train Orthodox priests in the country, closed since 1971. Even the title “ecumenical” is lashed out at by some Turkish authorities and their nationalist supporters. Every year, international reports on religious freedom point to such pressures on the Ecumenical Patriarchate with concern, and they are right to do so.
But why does Turkey do all this? Why is it is so repressive?
Enter Ottoman pluralism
In fact, things were much better long ago. The first Turkish ruler to reign over the Ecumenical Patriarchate was Mehmed II, the Ottoman Sultan who conquered Constantinople in 1453. In line with the Islamic tradition of the acceptance of the “People of the Book,” the young sultan granted amnesty to the patriarchate. He also gave the institution many privileges and much authority, no less than that which existed previously under the Byzantine emperors.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate thus became the head of one of the empire’s several “nations,” to be joined later by Armenians and Jews, which all enjoyed autonomy in their affairs in the centuries to come. That’s why, in the 18th century, the Greek Patriarch in Jerusalem praised the Ottoman throne with quite generous words:
“God raised out of nothing this powerful empire of the Ottomans, in place of our Roman [Byzantine] Empire… The almighty Lord has placed over us this high kingdom, for there is no power but of God… [And] He puts into the heart of the Sultan of these Ottomans an inclination to keep free the religious beliefs of our Orthodox faith.”
In the 19th century, the non-Muslim peoples of the empire also achieved the rights of equal citizenship with the Muslims. That’s why the late Ottoman bureaucracy and the Ottoman Parliament included a great number of Greeks, Armenians and Jews – something you can never see in republican Turkey. The Halki Seminary, opened in 1844, is a relic from that bygone age of pluralism.
What destroyed this Pax Ottomana, as some historians call it, was nationalism. It affected the peoples of the empire one-by-one, including, toward the end, the Turks. A great many conflicts happened between the latter and the rest, and the colossal collapse of the great empire left a bitter taste in the mouths of all. The Armenians, who suffered the worst tragedy in 1915, never forgot and forgave.
What the Turks rather remembered was the “treason” of the other components of the empire, and especially that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The latter had cheered for the Greek armies when they invaded western Anatolia in 1919. From that point onward, the institution, in the eyes of many Turks, became the “fifth column” of their untrustworthy neighbor. Hence, the seminary suffered the worst crackdowns during times of crises with Greece and Greeks Cypriots.
All this means that a part of the problem is just the curse of history. But you can either trap yourself inside the misfortunes of history, or take some lessons from it and then move on. To date, unfortunately, the Turkish Republic has often chosen the former option.
This has something to do with the fact that this Republic is constructed as an authoritarian, not democratic, basis. All authoritarian states need “internal enemies,” and the Turkey has had no shortage of them. A short list would include the liberals, the Kurds, practicing Muslims, the Marxist left, and Christians of all sorts.
All these groups, somehow, fail to conform to at least one of the two main pillars of the state ideology: A self-styled secularism that bans anything but “the secular way of life,” and a fierce nationalism that abhors anything it deems “non-Turkish.”
No king but the deep Caesar
Today, the real obstacle to the liberalization of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the same state ideology, and its supporters, the staunch Kemalists. The latter, a bit like the proponents of another crucifixion that happened two millennia ago, have no king but Caesar, and no value but the State’s supremacy.
I saw a good manifestation of this last Tuesday night in a live discussion aired on CNNTurk. The deputy from the all-Kemalist CHP, Muharrem Ince, who opposes the reopening of the Halki Seminary, became angry during the talk. “Do you know who most wants to open the seminary in this country,” he loudly asked. “The Islamists! They want this, because they want to open Islamic schools as well.”
Yes, this is indeed the position increasingly adopted by Turkey’s Islamic opinion leaders, who realize that religious freedom must be championed for all. They, after all, have a good frame of reference in the pluralism of the Ottomans.
Therefore it is not an accident that the more Muslim-minded AKP government has shown more goodwill on this issue, as the Ecumenical Patriarch himself acknowledged in an interview published in the Daily News yesterday. His All Holiness also said that the real obstacle is probably “the deep state.”
Yet no excuse beats success, and it is still the government’s duty to set the Ecumenical Patriarchate free – something which should be done immediately.