By Chadwick R. Gore
The Helsinki Commission briefing, “The Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey: A Victim of Systematic Expropriation” was held on March 16, 2005. The ecumenical panel of experts included: Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch; Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington; Rabbi Arthur Schneier, President of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation; Dr. Anthony Limberakis, National Commander of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle; and Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) opened the briefing and Commission Senior Advisor Elizabeth B. Pryor moderated.
Co-Chairman Smith described the issue of the status of the Orthodox Church in Turkey as “black and white.” Turkey’s practice of property seizures, continuous impediments to land ownership and church repairs, and the denial of legal status for the Ecumenical Patriarchate are all in direct contradiction to Ankara’s OSCE commitments. While the current government has initiated a broad regime of reforms, Co-Chairman Smith encouraged the government to do more. “Turkey has a proud history of religious tolerance, but current government policies appear targeted to bring about the eventual exodus of Greek Orthodoxy from Turkey entirely,” said Rep. Smith. “I urge the Government of Turkey to continue with its good reform program, take actions to support its Orthodox citizens, and to bring its laws and policies into conformity with OSCE commitments.”
Archbishop Demetrios provided a detailed account of the maltreatment of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey. Since the government-provoked riots against the Greek Orthodox minority in 1955 – when the community numbered around 100,000 – the Church has been reduced to its present day remnant of 3,000 believers or less. The survival of this minority has been threatened by the continued closure of the Halki Theological School. This seminary, which was closed in 1971 on the pretext that privately run institutions were no longer legal, was the only school in the country for the training of Orthodox clergy. The continued closure means the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey is unable to train new clergy in-country.
The Archbishop also detailed cases of government confiscation of other church property. The two most significant accounts of such seizure are a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing the government to take possession of an historic orphanage on the island of Pringipo, and the expropriation of 152 properties of the Balukli Hospital in Istanbul. In addition, Demetrios noted that the government does not recognize the word “ecumenical” in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, thus denying the principal body of the church legal status.
Rabbi Schneier relayed his experiences from multiple trips to Turkey speaking in support of the Greek Orthodox Church in crisis. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey was thought to be a model of peaceful, religious coexistence for countries of Central Asia. In 1991, Rabbi Schneier met with the Patriarch and proposed a “Peace and Tolerance Conference.” The conference, which occurred in 1994, was widely supported by various religions and seemed to set a new tone for religious tolerance in Turkey and the region.
Schneier urged the Turkish Government to take advantage of the world-wide respect that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has gained as a religious institution that preaches tolerance and fosters inter-religious cooperation. In conclusion, Rabbi Scheiner admonished the Turkish Government “to live and let live.”
Dr. Limberakis detailed the various religious liberty violations he had personally witnessed on several trips to Turkey. He provided charts, showing that in 1936 the Greek Orthodox Church owned more than 8,000 properties. By 1999, its holdings had been reduced to about 2,000 places and today that number is less than 500. For the properties the church retains, the government has been slow or non-responsive in issuing building permits and allowing for repairs. The Church of the Virgin Mary, which was severely damaged in the 2003 terrorist bombings in Istanbul, waited more than a year for the building permits to rebuild. Limberakis categorized this as “emblematic of the modus operandi of the Government of Turkey.”
Limberakis also discussed the Balukli Hospital and Home for the Aged. In addition to having some of its properties seized, the government has recently informed the hospital that it is subject to a 42% retroactive tax dating back to 1999. He recounted how he was assured by government leaders in February 2004 that the Halki Seminary would reopen and that it would possibly be operational for the 2004-2005 school year. September 2004 came and no progress was made. In a meeting in December 2004, the issue was discussed with Turkish officials but no further assurances were given.
Dr. Edgar began his testimony by stressing the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarch, not only to Orthodox believers, but to Christians around the world for thousands of years. Istanbul has retained “its place of ecclesiastical prominence among the Orthodox Churches and its place of honor throughout the entire Christian world.” Edgar lauded the Ecumenical Patriarch as the “symbolic leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.”
Edgar discussed how the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which formally recognized the Greek Orthodox community as a minority in Turkey, guarantees the community’s rights. The Turkish Constitution states that religious liberties are to be enjoyed by all. Though the government has made promises, the implementation is lacking.
Cardinal McCarrick agreed with others in saying that the Turkish Government greatly misunderstands the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He said, “Turkey, one would hope, would be so proud to have among its citizens and among its religious leaders one whose influence is felt not only beyond its borders, but throughout the world.” He discussed Pope John Paul II’s tremendous respect and honor for Patriarch Bartholomew, the current Ecumenical Patriarch and leader of the Orthodox Church.
McCarrick briefly mentioned Turkey’s Law on Foundations which has created difficulties for non-Muslim religious communities. He reported that revenues from property transactions were often frozen and that religious institutions were often required to pay corporate taxes.
Over the years members of the Helsinki Commission have been consistent and vocal advocates for the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as other religious groups experiencing problems in Turkey, be they Muslim, Christian or other. The briefing made it clear the Government of Turkey needs to take several positive steps to fulfill the Helsinki commitments regarding freedoms of religion and assembly which it has freely accepted.
First, the apparent systematic expropriation of the properties of the Greek Orthodox Church ascribed as legal under the foundation laws of Turkey must cease. While such actions may be legal they are clearly wrong and prevent Turkey from fulfilling its basic Helsinki commitments. One can easily perceive sinister motives in the application of these laws regarding religious institutions—they appear to have as their goal the eradication of the Greek Orthodox from all of Turkey. Turkey needs to remove religious institutions from under these laws and free religious institutions from their burden.
Second, Turkey needs to appreciate that freedom of the spirit is not a threat to the state. Allowing such freedom actually enhances one’s commitment to and love of country. The current system erodes the fundamental glue that keeps citizens proud of their lineage.
And, finally, Turkey needs to look outward to the modern world to realize that the great democracies not only allow freedom of religion and assembly, accompanied by speech rights, but encourage them. Both the state and the citizen will grow better in the light of openness, acceptance and tolerance.
This briefing was the first in a series of three, with the second briefing focusing on the Turkish Government’s treatment of other religious communities in the country. The last event will be with representatives of the Turkish Government in Ankara, addressing a variety of issues including those discussed in the first two briefings.
United States Helsinki Commission intern Alesha Guruswamy contributed to this article.