Mr. President, a year ago this month I was privileged to again meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I. His impassioned call for support for the reopening of the Theological School of Halki promoted me to introduce S. Res. 356, a bipartisan measure calling upon the Government of Turkey to facilitate the reopening of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Theological School of Halki without condition or further delay. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the forced closure on that unique institution by the Turkish authorities, I renew my call for the Government of Turkey to allow the seminary to reopen.
Founded in 1844, the Theological School of Halki, located outside modern-day Istanbul, served as the principal seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate until its forcible closure by the Turkish authorities in 1971. Counted among alumni of this preeminent educational institution are numerous prominent Orthodox scholars, theologians, priests, and bishops as well as patriarchs, including Bartholomew I. Many of these scholars and theologians have served as faculty at other institutions serving Orthodox communities around the world.
Past indications by the Turkish authorities of pending action to reopen the seminary have, regrettably, failed to materialize. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdog 0an met with the Ecumenical Patriarch in August 2009. In an address to a wider gathering of minority religious leaders that day, Erdog 0an concluded by stating, “We should not be of those who gather, talk and disperse. A result should come out of this.” I could not agree more with the sentiment. But resolution of this longstanding matter requires resolve, not rhetoric.
In a positive development this August, the authorities in Ankara, for the first time since 1922, permitted a liturgical celebration to take place at the historic Sumela Monastery. The Ecumenical Patriarch presided at the service, attended by pilgrims and religious leaders from several countries, including Greece and Russia. Earlier this month, a Turkish court ordered the Buyukada orphanage to be returned to Ecumenical Patriarchate. If the transfer of the property occurs, this would be another welcome development, potentially paving the way for the return of scores of other church properties seized by the government. In 2005, the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, convened a briefing, “The Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey: A Victim of Systematic Expropriation.” The Commission has consistently raised the issue of the Theological School for well over a decade and will continue to closely monitor related developments.
Yesterday’s release of the 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom is a reminder of the challenges faced by Orthodox and other minority religious communities in Turkey. I urge the Turkish Prime Minister to ensure respect for the rights of individuals from these groups to freely profess and practice their religion or beliefs, in keeping with Turkey’s obligations as an OSCE participating state.
The 1989 OSCE Vienna Concluding Document affirmed the right of religious communities to provide “training of religious personnel in appropriate institutions.” The Theological School of Halki served that function for over a century until its forced closure nearly four decades ago. The time has come to allow the reopening of this unique institution without further delay.