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Reopening of Orthodox seminary hinges on Turkish-Greek relations

SHARE Reopening of Orthodox seminary hinges on Turkish-Greek relations

HEYBELI ISLAND, Turkey — The marble floors are polished to a high gloss. The latest scholarly journals are arranged with care in the famous library. The sparse dormitories are spotless and, in one huge hallway, two pingpong tables stand ready, nets taut.

Everything is in perfect order at the Holy Theological School of Chalki, one of the most historic and important seminaries in Orthodox Christianity. But the only students are the ghosts of monks and priests who lived and trained here for more than 1,000 years before the Turkish government closed the school in 1971.

Despite the pleadings of Orthodox leaders and the urgings of Turkey's allies, most recently President Clinton, Turkish authorities insist that the school remain closed under a law that gave the government control over higher education in religious and military affairs.

The primary motive for the law was to impose government authority over training Islamic clerics, but it also snared the theological seminary run by the Greek Orthodox Church on the picturesque Heybeli Island, in the Sea of Marmara.

The name means "saddle bag island" in Turkish, and it derives from the two hilltops that embrace the lower harbors, though the Greeks called it Chalki. The island is part of a small archipelago known as the Prince's Islands about an hour's ferry ride from Istanbul.

In the sixth century, the monasteries and convents on the islands became infamous as a place of exile for ousted Byzantine rulers, with emperors and empresses alike finding themselves banished to cells there. In the latter part of the 19th century, the start of steamboat service allowed wealthy Istanbul residents to build summer villas in the islands. Leon Trotsky lived in a mansion on the largest island from 1929 to 1933.

The islands retain a quaint charm, despite the profusion of villas and apartments. Cars are used only by police and for garbage pickup, and on a summer weekend the air is filled with the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages and the shouts of bathers fleeing Istanbul's heat.

The theological school on Heybeli Island was built in 1844 atop one of the two hills, on the site of the Holy Trinity monastery and school, which dated to the ninth century. The school's library is regarded as one of the richest in the world in old and rare works. Like the rest of the school, the library is cleaned meticulously each day by the four clerics and 14 employees who maintain the school.

On Saturday, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world's 220 million Orthodox Christians and leader of the Greek-Orthodox Church, arrived at dockside here aboard a private boat with an entourage of archbishops and priests. The patriarch's primary residence is in Istanbul, but he regularly visits the island to lead services in the school chapel for island residents and tourists.

As sunbathers gawked, the black-robed, bearded patriarch stepped agilely into a carriage for a trip up the winding road to the theological seminary. Like each patriarch before him, Bartholomew, 60, was educated here. Sitting in his sparse quarters after his arrival, he reminisced painfully about the scholarly atmosphere during his years here and lamented the seminary's closing.

"For a religious institution like the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is accepted and recognized throughout the world as the first seat of the Orthodox Church, it is inconceivable not to have a school, an educational institution to prepare coming generations," he said.

Fewer than half of Turkey's 75 Greek Orthodox churches are open, in part because of a shortage of priests. And the population of ethnic Greeks, with an average age of 60, has been whittled from 150,000 to about 2,500 over a century of expulsions, attrition and migration, church officials said.

Turkish authorities have kept the seminary closed partly out of historic antipathy for the Greeks. But the more pressing fear is that opening this school would lead to demands for similar freedom from Islamic religious groups, an element of society on which the secular government keeps a firm grip.

Still, last spring brought a glimmer of hope. Clinton had pressed Turkey on the issue in Istanbul the previous November, and warming relations with Greece seemed to make the timing good. Opening the school was regarded as a gesture that would keep progress going. Even President Suleyman Demirel privately supported the move, church officials had heard.

But Demirel was denied another term, and the pace of improving relations between Turkey and Greece has lost some momentum in the continuing disputes over such tough obstacles as boundaries in the Aegean Sea and how to govern Cyprus.

Ministers from both countries have exchanged sharp words in recent weeks.

No one in authority is arguing that relations between the countries are on the rocks, but prospects for reopening the seminary have dimmed. Still, each day the floors are shined and the library is dusted in preparation for the next class of students.