Turkish Discrimination Against Christian Schools–Or Is It?

December 22, 2009 at 3:47 PM 30 comments

Written by Lewis D. Eigen


Christian theological seminaries are currently banned in Turkey. Yet this is a prohibition with which some Westerners and Christians agree, and even those who do not, often understand. The complexity that has resulted from the clash between Islam and modernity is so great that it is almost impossible to tell what is liberal and democratic and what is not. The conflict between Moslem Turkey and Christianity with respect to theological seminaries is a marvelous example of things being in reality very different from what they first appear. This is the story of complexity where up can be down and wrong might be right.

The Roman Catholic Church is headquartered in Rome, but historically the Roman Empire had split into two great halves–The West in Rome and the Eastern Church centered in Byzantium whose capital was Constantinople, now Istanbul. It was the Eastern Christian Church that was initially the wealthier, the more sophisticated, the more powerful, the more intellectual and which produced more theology and religious influence on Christians and the World. The Roman Emperor had moved to Constantinople. The Pope was in Rome and was coping with the Barbarian invasions and internal struggles for supremacy within the church. Influence was limited to Christians in Western Europe and not even all of that. The Eastern Church was the connection between European Christians and the then very vibrant Christian community throughout the Middle East and much of North Africa. The great art of early Christianity was Eastern and the greatest church of early Christendom–St. Sophia, the architectural miracle of the 5th century was built in the center of Constantinople almost a millennium before the erection of St Peters in Rome.

Bartholomew, Patriarch of Constantinople. The first among equals.

The 1054 schism between the two centers of Christianity in great part centered around the role and powers of the Pope who in a dispute with several Eastern bishops, excommunicated them. The Eastern Christians supported the excommunicated bishops and the Western Christians, the Pope. It was done. This schism was different from Martin Luther’s objection to Rome and the Papacy and the then corruption of the Roman Church. Theologically there is very little difference–even today–between the Eastern and Roman Christian Churches. The most substantial is the difference in authority between Pope Benedict and Bartholomew, his opposite number in Eastern Orthodoxy. Whereas Benedict appoints all the Cardinals and Bishops, the leaders of the Church all over the world, Bartholomew does not. The Eastern Christian Church is much more decentralized and more nationalistic. The Russians select the Russian Patriarch, The Armenians select theirs. The Greeks, theirs, and so forth. The seat of the Eastern Church in Constantinople carries the prestige and tradition of the centrality of the Eastern Orthodox Churches but the 300 million Orthodox Christians in the 14 different orthodox Churches are nowhere near as influenced by Bartholomew as Roman Catholics are by Benedict. While Bartholomew is revered as much as his Roman counterpart, he and his seat of the Church are much more informal. And according to Eastern Theology Bartholomew has control of the Christian Church in Turkey. His influence amongst all the other Patriarchs is extremely great but it is more traditional and earned by his leadership style which has produced much respect. He is the “first among equals.” It is not a theological duty for Eastern Orthodox Christians to in America for example to adhere to the views of Bartholomew or any other “foreign” patriarch.

History however changed the political, economic, cultural and eventually theological aspects of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1204, Western Christian Crusaders, sacked Bysantium and stole much of their religious art and regalia. Most dramatic and meaningful however, was the successful Moslem invasion of Constantinople in 1453. The Eastern Christian Church in Byzantium fell under the control of Islam where they were a conquered minority. In a bizarre set of events, the Patriarch of Constantinople became religiously very powerful. For the next year the Sultan Mehmed II made the Patriarch the spiritual, administrative and de facto leader of all Christians in the huge Ottoman Empire. Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians, Greeks, Middle Easterners all were now under the Patriarch of Constantinople. However, the Christians were still a persecuted minority. The Ottoman Empire soon reached into Greece and the Balkans, Hungary and much of Eastern Europe. The Ottomans were stopped at the gates of Vienna, and from that time on, the Roman Catholic Church could grow in power–religious and secular, while the Eastern Church was a religion without any secular power or much influence other than what they would be allowed by the Sultan in an Islamic controlled empire. In Turkey the fundamentalist Moslems invoked a rule that no church could be larger than the smallest Mosque and great churches like St. Sophia were actually turned into mosques.

The Eastern Christian Church however survived and even thrived in some places. When the Ottoman Empire fell in WWI, much of the new secular governments of the old Ottoman territories became Christian culturally if not civically. The Eastern Church however, had to contend with communism–which was a hostile force. But that too they survived. Turkey, however which had many millions of Christians in its Ottoman Empire was stripped of all those territories and that they were left with was the land area of modern Turkey–a land of 60 million people. The difficulty for the Patriarch of Constantinople, the traditional and titular head of the Eastern Orthodox Christians, was that the Christian areas had been separated from Turkey and given independence. This left the Patriarch of Constantinople presiding over the Eastern Church in a land that was 99 percent Moslem.

Fortunately for the small minorities of Christians (and Jews) of Turkey, a leader or the Turks arose, revolutionized, and modernized Turkey. Kamal Ataturk, one of the most amazing revolutionists of all time, in a relatively few years, established equal rights for women, democracy, secular control of government, Western dress, abolished Arabic and write Turkish in a Western alphabet, and above all made freedom and equality of religion the way of life for all. The traditional Islamic religious control over other religions was broken. All this was accomplished in a few years with a miniscule loss of life.

The Patriarch of Constantinople and his church had the freedom it had lacked for over 500 years. Ataturk’s Turkish constitution created a secular state, where the Sultan, imams, mullahs, and muftis lost virtually all of their power and much of their influence. Turkey thrived in a way that no other Islamic state has in modern times (and without any oil), but this has always been resented by the most militant of the Moslem fundamentalists in the rest of the world. Islamic fundamentalism was not eliminated in Turkey–just subdued, but was a definite minority as Turkey became a modern state. The great struggle in Turkish politics since the death of Ataturk has been maintaining the secular state. Separation of Mosque and State and no religious preference for Islam at the expense of any other religion. Several times when Islamic fundamentalist religious advocates seemed to be reaching the point of breaching the separation of church and state, the Turkish army came out of the barracks, restored secular government, and returned to their exclaves where they perceived themselves as the guardians of the secular Turkish state against the forces of Islamic fundamentalism.

Traditionally, the Moslems have always appreciated the importance of education and its effectiveness and power. When Europe was in the Dark and Middle ages, the greatest of the arts, sciences, and philosophy thrived and were maintained in the Islamic world–even Western science, art and literature. However, Islam has always had a great educational struggle between to ideas. The first was that education should be limited to religion–Islamic religion of course–and that which should be taught and studied by every Moslem male is in the Koran. Theologically no other knowledge is legitimate or useful. New ideas, innovation, is dangerous. The second was that education should and must be used to teach everything–religious as well as secular. It is the latter which Ataturk and the Turkish reformers chose as the national ethos. School was made compulsory for girls as well as boys (more so than the United States of the time incidentally) and a complete secular curriculum was adopted with strong emphasis on science and mathematics. Prior to reform, Europeans and a few modern Moslems were taught be secular teachers. Moslem religious teachers, as is true even today in some major Moslem universities, themselves had no background in secular subjects, but their method of teaching was generally completely rote–memorizing the verses of the Prophet. So the Turkish reformers had to revolutionize the school system. Public schools were secular and not only was attendance compulsory but students were required to go to public schools. Religious schools were abolished. There were no madrasses where fundamentalist zealots could do what they so successfully accomplish today in Pakistan and other Muslim nations. There was religious instruction, but that was tightly controlled by the state. There could be no teaching against the secular dominated state, no teaching that democracy was against the will of God, no teaching that other religions were dangers to society and the Islamic way of life, no teaching that was discriminatory against women. Turkish education became very good at all levels. All schools were controlled by the secular state.

The Patriarchy had since the middle of the 18th century operated the Halki religious high school and seminary for the training of Orthodox clerics and there was little problem until the 1960s when the strange politics of Turkey created an anomality. Some private colleges were opening in Turkey (mostly Western) and some of the more religious Moslems, wanting to get out from under the civil thumb of the Turkish government and teach Islamic Law as it has been for 1400 years, began to establish Islamic private “universities” as then provided for under the existing private university law. Religious freedom for Ataturk and the Turkish reformers had always meant “freedom FROM religion” and not our view of “freedom of religion”. For that was all that Islam and Christian European history had known. One dominant religion by force and law imposing it self on the population of a given area. The notion of a number of Islamic colleges teaching the preeminence of Islam over the civil state was just too much, and many Turkish secularists would not allow that to happen. The feared exactly what occurred in Pakistan later. However, there was a Turkish law that allowed private colleges. How were the Turkish secularists to prevent the Moslem Fundamentalists from opening what they saw as seeds of destruction of the civil state? The law allowed it. However, the Constitution required a secular state, and so the Private College Education Law was challenged by the secularists. Sure enough, in 1971 the Turkish Supreme Court Declared the Private College Education Law unconstitutional because it allowed religious schools to operate independent of the state. The Turkish secularists had no problem with Islamic religious colleges so long as they were the tolerant brand of Islam of which they had plenty of in Turkey. To make sure, the state could control the curriculum and the faculty of all the public colleges. So there could be no private Islamic colleges in Turkey. The religious militants protested vehemently and argued that Islam was being discriminated against. That the Christians had their religious seminary–The Halki. Why were the Christians favored more than the Moslems in an Islamic country. So the Halki became collateral damage in the struggle between the secular and fundamentalist Moslems. It was ordered that there could be no private religious colleges. The Turks are if nothing else, very creative in their law and government. They didn’t want the only Christian seminary in Turkey to close. So they came up with a very creative solution. Since the University of Istanbul, a state university, had an Islamic Theological Seminary (training the moderate Imams and muftis), they could have a Christian one also. So with a wink and a nod, they told the Patriarch that the Halki could continue to operate just as it always had, except that now it was officially a Department of the University of Istanbul. The Turks would even throw in the moey to operate the seminary as they paid for the Moslem seminary at the public university, and Christians were equally entitled Turkish citizens. Their model was Columbia University which had the Union Theological Seminary (a Christian Seminary) and a separate institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary all under the same theoretical auspices.  That auspices was not a government however..

However the Patriarch, as a matter of principle, would not agree that a government–any government–could even if in law and name only operate an Orthodox seminary. After all, even the Russian Communists never even dared claim state control over the Russian Orthodox seminaries. The Patriarch, while he appears in his regalia portrait above very formal and austere, is personally just the opposite.  An informal, down to earth, incredibly friendly man, he is an eminiently practical modernist with a twinkle in his eye.  But he has the weight of almost two thousand years of history upon him and is the leader of 300 million congregants the world over.  He has many considerations to balance, and while the Eastern Orthodox Church is nowhere near as political as its Roman Catholic counterpart, there are some political issues that become very close calls and this was one.  The Patriarch could not accept the deal even though it would practically solve the problem for all.

The secular Turks were then caught in a bind. They could not allow the Christians the independence that they denied to the Moslems, and they knew perfectly well that Saudi Arabian and other Arab oil money would rapidly fund radical schools, and Turkey might subsequently be torn apart in a religious civil war.

Fast forward to 2009. Now the religious factions of Turkey are stronger than ever. While not the majority, they are the largest plurality party and they control the government–but it is a government that has a very strong Constitution that prohibits Moslem theocracy or even Islamic preeminence. And the secular Army is there to enforce that constitution if the government pressures the courts to allow more religious control or influence.  The religious party has the government, but the judiciary, the army and the constitution are all strongly secular.  The government has to be careful not to push the secularists too far lest the government be disolved under military threat as has happened before.

About the Christian seminary, the secular Turks are very ambivalent. They feel that they owe their Eastern Orthodox Christian Citizens a struncture under which their church can grow and thrive. But they don’t want to commit state suicide by allowing religious independent institutions that could include radical, revolutionary, violent, terror prone madrasses. They are constantly looking for more creative ways to open The Halki without allowing the extreme Moslem activists a similar opportunity. Meanwhile, the religious political party is really opposed to a secular state, nor do they want any kind of “heathen” Christian institution training more Christians. It is the Christians that should be converting to Islam, not the other way around. So they will not allow any compromise with the Patriarch over Haliki UNLESS there can be privately controlled Islamic academies as well. Then they hope that they can end the secular state of Turkey so much a thorn in the side of the Islamic fundamentalists. Moslems are angry because they are poor, even when they have oil. They are intellectually backward in a world that is racing ahead. They are weak and are militarily humiliated. Yet those secular contemporary Turks, are a modern strong state, scientifically and technologically advanced with the 4th largest military in the world and so respected that they are and have been members of NATO. Turkey is the living counter example to the Moslem fundamentalists who argue that modernization is against the will of God and will never be successful.  Secular Turkey is by far the most successful Moslem nation.

The Haliki is cleaned and dusted every day. The books of its great library (some of the oldest of Christian literature) are maintained in perfect condition. The Christian theologians and scholars are ready to teach at any moment. There are however no students, and the Patriarch, a loyal and patriotic Turkish citizen, will not break the law. He will not cease to object to the situation using the freedom of speech which he and the Ataturk secularists value so much yet most radical Islamists would try and eliminate though they use it to achieve their ends of eliminating it. The situation is further complicated by the effort of Turkey to join the European Community. Western democratic values have tended to emulate America’s example: Freedom of Religion and the European countries look askance at the Turkish restriction on private religious schools and colleges. However, those same countries themselves are also coping with the classic democratic dilemma. Must a democracy allow freedom of action to anti-democratic forces which if they ever reach civil power have announced that they will abolish many of the democratic rights that allowed them to achieve power to begin with? France is trying to license or otherwise control of imams preaching in France by combinations of language requirements, acculturation and even acceptance of basic French cultural and political principles. And Germany, never forgetting that Adolf Hitler and his followers were elected, makes restrictions on political speech and religion that America and the UK would never countenance.  If one right wing Christian minister or Priest extolled Hitler in a Sunday sermon, he would be jailed so quickly that no one could say “freedom of speech.”  Turkey’s laws do not make it that easy;  it is the threat of the military intervening that keeps the religious fundamentalsits at bay.  Turkey’s still majority secularists see themselves closer to the German plight than the American situation. However, the Turkish laws and constitution are more liberal and democratic than Germany’s which are ever intimidated by the specre of Nazism.  Iran voted overwhelmingly to establish their Islamic Theocracy, but now no Iranian can vote for his choice of political leader without the approval of a candidacy by the Supreme Religious Leader. After the Shah was overthrown, democracy lasted just long enough for the people to select leaders who abolished democracy. We in America sometimes forget that with the multiparty political systems of most other democratic nations, a well organized and passionate minority can control a government, de juro as in Turkey or de facto as in Israel. Turkey’s secularist majority sees their entire modern democracy threatened–not by the Patriach Bartholomew and his religious seminary, but by the hundreds if not thousands of Moslem entities which would spring up. Only a few decades ago, there were less than 300 madrasses in all of Pakistan. Today there are over 6000. And many of them daily preach hatred, violence, intolerance and especially enmity toward the civil, democratic government. Some activly recruit and train terrorists. There is no shortage of suicide bombers in Pakistan. The Turks observe that their culture makes suicide bombing an anathema both civilly and Islamically. But that is because thay have control over their own cultural institutions. Allowing the most radical of Islamist fundamentalists to train their acolytes could change that.

Meanwhile, most of us look at the plight of Bartholomew and the Orthodox Christian Church in Turkey and find the situation unacceptable. However, no one in Turkey or the other democratic nations has yet come up with an idea of how to square the circle: In a 99 percent Moslem country, prevent the most radical of Islamic fanatics from opening and running private institutions and yet allow the majority of reasonable religious adherents of any particular sect to establish and run their own college and seminary, and do this in such a way that the principle of religious independence is not subjugated to the degree that self-respecting religions could not accept the de juro terms even if they have de facto independence. Ironically, if Turkey tips and goes Islamist, Patriarch Bartholomew will never be able to open his beloved Haliki, but he would also not have all the other religious freedom that he has today. And just as there is no Christian Patriarch or Bishop operating in Saudi Arabia or Iran today, the ancient seat of Christendom in Istanbul would probably be shortly wiped out for a long time if not forever.

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  • 5. Leyla Ecevit  |  December 24, 2009 at 12:01 PM

    Thank you! Thank you from a woman who was freely educated and raised in the secular Turkey because of what Ataturk and the Turkish secularists accomplished. This subject is so dear to my heart. You have summarized what is at stake in Turkey and why the religious fundamentalists of the Islamic world have been trying so hard to defame the Turkish military and secular university professors. On behalf of so many free women in Turkey, I applaud your perfect understanding of modern Turkey’s history. Please continue to speak up and inform everybody. I hope that the fundamentalists do not infiltrate the secular institutions of Turkey and the women and minorities do not lose.

  • 6. Ted Mena  |  December 24, 2009 at 2:02 PM

    An interesting article worthy of reading in light of the 60 minutes coverage on the Orthodox Church is Turkey. The author Lewis Eigen (I have never heard of him) has given a much broader perspective to the whole issue while explaning Turkey’s approach to religion and religious freedom of the masses. Regards.

    • 7. Scriptamus  |  December 24, 2009 at 6:53 PM

      For those who may not have seen it, Mr. Mena above refers to a CBS 60 Minutes broadcast this past Sunday. See


      It was a typically brilliant piece of reportage for 60 Minutes and it covered the Patriarch Bartholomew, and the Orthodox Church including the Turkish closure of the Christian seminary. I recommend it to all who did not see it,

      As Mr. Mena observes the 60 Minutes piece did not go into the reasons for the seminary closure–just the fact that it had been closed, the hardship that has caused the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Patriarch’s distress. I almost held up publishing my article after seeing the 60 Minutes piece to “respond” as CBS did not attempt to explain the reasons. However, every piece of opinion or journalism can only cover so much and the 60 Minutes piece did what it did incredibly well. I’d would be terrific if that group decided to do another piece on the Turkish dilemma regarding religion and civil, secular government, That is what I was trying to write about, using the closing of the Christian seminary as an example of the complexity of the moral, religious, and political problem the Turks face. Hopefully CBS and others can do this as I have only “scratched the surface” of this issue in my article.

  • 8. Sarper Selhep  |  December 27, 2009 at 2:42 AM

    You have made a perfect analysis of the Turkish Republic. I am a secular Turk living in Ankara and Istanbul. I am a business man. We secular white Turks mentality has formed this secular democratic republic and we worked in our fields of activity paid taxes developed our companies employed people but as a result we come to the point of recognition that we are now the minority in this country and many of my friends are most disturbed with the present situation in our country. I have moved my children to USA many are also seeking for similar possibilities.This country is rapidly moving towards Islam and our lion Military has turned into a cat.
    In the 60 minutes program just on the name of being fare and honest they could have made one sentence, just one sentence; Turks do not allow Haliki because than they have to allow the Islamic schools too and this will be a threat to their secular democratic republic system. How many seconds does it take to say this in 60 minutes ? We secular Turks have lost our country because of the simple fact that Islam has been supported during the cold war and used against Russia and Islam in Turkey has enjoyed the similar support finally coming to the present condition that an Islamic party is ruling our Democratic Secular Republic Country and this is a tragedy.

  • 9. Artun  |  January 5, 2010 at 4:59 AM

    Amazing! How can a stranger draw such a clear yet objective outline of the situation. Makes me think nothing is impossible unless you really don’t want to get there!

  • 10. Atesh  |  January 7, 2010 at 10:52 AM

    Dear Lewis, you made me so proud with your objective, informing, well researched comment. Thanks for making me (want to) learn more about my own country.

  • 11. Peter K.  |  January 18, 2010 at 12:03 AM

    This is a very informative article about the Halki School of Theology, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Turkish governments reason for its closure, however making a comparison to the influence of the Orthodox church to that of Islamic fundamentalist madras’s is quite a stretch of the imagination..

  • 12. Scriptamus  |  January 18, 2010 at 12:28 AM

    I gues I didn’t write the article well enough as I didn’t mean to compare in any way the Orthodox Seminary and the radical madrasses, other than that they BOTH want to be religious institutions that are INDEPENDENT of the state with their curriculum not under government scrutiny.

    With the Seminary, the issue is a matter of principle. There is nothing in Christian Orthodoxy that the secular Turkes would find troublesome. However some radical madrasses have much that the government would want to curtail–as would most non-Islamic governments. The Turks can hardly give Christians more autonomy than they give Moslem religious schools. That is the problem.

    And nowone has yet come up with any practical suggestions for Turkey. Hopefully, someone will be stimulated by this article and the dialogue to come up with some ideas. All are welcome!

    Lewis D. Eigen

    • 13. Pete K.  |  January 19, 2010 at 2:09 AM

      I was merely pointing to what I believe is a flawed logic used to formulate a decision by the Turkish government and a poor excuse to keep Halki School of Theology shuttered.

      If the Turkish government really wants to be a democracy they should request all schools of theology to submit their religious doctrine and associated curriculum then a jury of professional sociologists and translators can publish the finings and allow a public vote to make a decision on what material and practices are objectionable to human decency and coexistence. Simple Idea and solution, perhaps too simple.

      • 14. Hally  |  January 20, 2010 at 6:33 PM


        The U.S. is a democracy too and also has laws, rules and regulations all religions must comply with to maintain their status as religions. Democracy does not mean you can do whatever you want and that your behavior is not subject to laws that regulate it.

        Halki is shuttered due to the decision of the Orthodox Church. It was not closed by the Turkish government as those who hate all things Turkish would like everyone to believe.

        Religion is a touchy issue in Turkey because it has been used in the past to separate people to the degree that it resulted in all-out civil wars that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, Christian AND Muslim. To ignore that very real fact is to dismiss their suffering and that of their remaining descendants. Thus, in Turkey, equal treatment is a must.

        Subjecting all religions to the same laws is democratic and complies with principles of “equal treatment.” That the Greek Orthodox Church has a problem with that is an indication that IT is the problem and perhaps does not belong in a democracy in which no one specific religion is afforded “special exemptions” from the laws.

        The capitulations are long over and its time for the Greek Orthodox Church to get used to it.

        As for your suggestion, it could end in an entirely UNdemocratic result. Democracy protects minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Perhaps the majority Muslim population, in your suggestion, could be manipulated to vote in a manner that would be highly objectionable. Right now, if things were put to a vote in the U.S., how do you think conservatives (heard of Pat Robertson?) would try to sway the majority Christian vote against Muslims? The converse could happen in the middle east. It would be entirely irresponsible for Turkey to follow a suggestion like yours.

        Can you do it Pete K? Can you accept that Turkey is actually doing the right thing in this instance and that the Greek Orthodox Church is purposefully creating the problem because it finds a ready and willing audience in committed Turcophobes (i.e., those who, rather than living in the present, must every day re-live their ancestors’ defeat at the hands of Ottoman armies anywhere from 100 to centuries ago)?

  • 15. Hally  |  January 20, 2010 at 6:37 PM

    Dear Mr. Eigen,

    Thank you for taking on such a complex and highly controversial topic and unraveling it, even if doing so meant taking on an unpopular position.

    Your honesty is refreshing and very welcome in a world in which “spin” (i.e., slander and dishonesty) has become an accepted norm.

    Kind regards.

    • 16. Peter K.  |  January 24, 2010 at 3:47 AM

      Hally, you explanation contradicts it self; if it was “the decision of the Orthodox Church to shutter Halki” then they should be able to reopen it without any questions…But I guess we should all just stop trying and just listen to people like Pat Robertson and radicals like him and their xenophobic psychotic ramblings.

      • 17. Hally  |  January 27, 2010 at 4:03 PM

        They can open it without question provided they comply with laws that all theology schools in the Republic of Turkey are subject to.

  • 18. Scriptamus  |  January 24, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    Let’s face it. It takes “Two to Tango.” It is true that the Church can open the Seminary whenever they want to BUT the Trustees would have to agree to the PRINCIPLE that the State has control over the Curriculum. They don’t want to do this and we can all understand that.

    The Turks, in turn, can allow them to open as an independent entity, but then they would be violating their own laws and “discriminate” against Moslem seminaries who would not get such a privilege. Or they could allow all religions to have independent seminaries and risk the radicalism and destabilization of Pakistan with the Madrasses. We can all understand why these options are impossible from their point of view.

    What some of us might be able to do is come up with a creative solution that will allow BOTH sides to do what they would both prefer to do–OPEN THE SEMINARY. But a good diplomatic idea is needed. All suggestions are welcome.

    • 19. Hally  |  January 27, 2010 at 12:05 PM

      Dear Mr. Eigen,

      Agreed, however, as we can see, for example, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the recent murder of George Tiller in the U.S. by an anti-abortion activist, when it comes to religion, fanatics lose all reason and logic (and some might say, their sanity).

      What’s interesting here is that the Orthodox Church’s resistance to complying with laws all theological institutions must comply with. Why not give it a try and see what it is that the state is trying to “control”? Most likely, the State’s only interest is that theological institutions not be used to foment terrorism.

      It seems, “in principle”, the Greek Orthodox Church wants to maintain a status in which it is “above” the State. Where outside of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran is that permitted?

      What would be likely to result say, for example, if a “church” in the U.S. decided that in a democracy it should be permitted to lobby and participate in political activity while maintaining its tax-exempt status as a religious institution? Would there be the same hue and cry?

  • 20. Peter K.  |  January 26, 2010 at 1:24 AM

    Lewis, here are some news clips that I have seen published in several newspapers , and some more thoughts that come to mind.

    In 1971, the seminary was closed by a Turkish law that forbids private universities from functioning in Turkey. This law also does not allow the election of a non Turkish citizen Patriarch. In 1998, the Turkish government ordered the disbandment of the Halki board of trustees, until international criticism persuaded the Turkish authorities to reverse their order.
    The charge against the trustees was alleged “mismanagement” and “propaganda against the Turkish government.

    As this country seeks to join the European Union it is apparent there are unstable governmental entities perhaps with religious, national or politically motivated aspirations, whatever the reality is it does not warrant the banning of all private universities due to the much-professed fear of one.

    I fear that this reasoning and enacting of such laws will appear to other countries as a perfect excuse to keep out whoever they happen to disagree with.

    A few radicals who are repeatedly being told they have no other options than to join the other side and turn against civilization are in effect holding the rest of us hostage.

    It is a shameful example and proof that we have all collectively devaluated human life by lessoning the importance of good teachers, and leaders that ask for nothing in return but the success of their students and good of their citizens.

  • 21. Peter K.  |  January 28, 2010 at 1:25 AM

    More articles and facts for you,
    The Halki Theological School was closed by an action of the Turkish government in 1971, and since that time, has been subject to actions by government agencies that seek to curb its activities. The School was founded in the nineteenth century on the grounds of the Patriarchal Monastery of the Holy Trinity that has occupied the site for over 1,000 years.
    Its closure constitutes a breach of Article 40 of the Lausanne Treaty and Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution which both guarantee religious freedom and education. Their provisions are also embodied in Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights and therefore the closure of the Halki Seminary can only be viewed as an illegal abuse of human rights and a violation of democracy and international law.

    • 22. Scriptamus  |  December 30, 2010 at 5:47 PM

      Sorry for the delay but I have been out of the country. Nothing formal other than the listed ones and the CBS program cited. Much of my insight has come from conversations with politically sophisticated Turks.

  • 23. Scriptamus  |  January 28, 2010 at 9:49 AM

    I am not sure what happened, but we did not intend to remove anything. Yet when we checked, your comment was in the Pending catagory. So we reapproved it and it seems to be fine. Your contribution to the dia;ogue is appreciated and we are sorry as one of us must have clicked the worng button by mistake. Please advise if it does not appear peroperly to you.

    • 24. Peter K.  |  January 29, 2010 at 12:21 AM

      Thank you for your prompt attention and your patience.

  • 25. Stelios M  |  April 14, 2010 at 4:01 AM

    Dear Mr. Eigen,

    I read through your article thoroughly and really found it fascinating. It gave me another perspective on an issue that is almost universally presented only from the Orthodox Church’s side.
    On my first reading, I felt strongly in agreement with you, since I know first-hand of all the issues you spoke of (turkish secularity, and their struggle with the islamists etc).

    However, after some thought, it occurred to me that things cannot really be so:

    The new law of 1961 that you say opened a window for private islamic universities was obviously NOT the founding law of the Halki Seminary. The school operated legally, with a state approved charter and curriculum, for about 200 years. It was founded under the Ottoman Empire, and continued to flourish under the new Turkish Republic.

    So, how can somebody base the CLOSING of a historical school on the fact that a law passed 200 years after the school’s founding was deemed unconstitutional?

    Ok, I understand that a law can have retroactive effect, but can that go back 200 years? And we’re not even talking about a new law here, we’re talking about the repealing of a law! Is it logical to say “oh, after repealing this law, the Halki school could have never opened, so let’s close it now”?

    I’m sorry but even though I wanted so much to believe what you are saying, I cannot find any other motive in the closing of the school except a vengeful and hateful attitude towards what’s left of the Greek Orthodox minority in Istanbul.

    If you combine it with the fact that at the same time they passed the law that required the patriarch to be a Turkish citizen, the plan seems obvious: Turkish citizens will not have an Orthodox religious school anymore, so after some time there will not be anyone of turkish citizenship capable of claiming the seat of the Patriarchate, and slowly it will cease to exist entirely. And it will all have been done “democratically” and “legally”.

  • 26. Scriptamus  |  April 14, 2010 at 1:44 PM

    Your ppoints are well taken.

    I don’t think for a minute that there are not forces in Turkey that want to eliminate any vestage of a non-Islamic religion in Turkey. These are the very opponents of the Turkish secular state that most modern Turks have to contend with.

    In addition, there is another group of moderate Turks who want to keep the Orthodox school closed until the Greeks allow the consturction of a Mosque in Athens where the religious right has blocked such thus far.

    However, the majority of the secularists want the school reopened and have come up with what they thought was a way of doing it. In the article I describe the plan to affiliate the school with the University of Istanbul like the Heberew Theological Seminary has been and is still affiliated with Columbia University. The School could be opened in a week. However, the directors of the Orthodox Church will not accept the principle of having to affiliate with a state institution. One cannot completely fault them, as this is a fundamental American priciple of separation of church and state. However, in Turkey, because of the Attaturk and secular Turkish fear of extreme Islam, there is NO Islamic school or institution allowed in Turkey that is not unter the de juro control of the state. This is the essense of the impasse.

    As typical of such situations, those who do hate and would desciirminate on both sides use the situation to whip up emotions. I perosnally think the affiliation solution to be a good one, but I centrainly can see the resonableness of the Greek Orthodox directors to oppose that. But I do not think that they are anti-Turkish of Islamic for doing so. Likewise, I don;t think that it is fair to conclude that the majority of the Turks in the secular government are anti Christian just because they will not give a right of independence to a Christian Church that why would never giver to an Ismalic organziation. They may be wrong, but they are not necessarily prejudiced. There are enough of those exteme Islamists in Turkey trying to change the very nature of the state.

  • 27. roberthoward  |  June 17, 2010 at 9:36 PM

    First, the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantanople, was founded by Christians. Sounds like some of the same made up Turkish excuses to me, and, as for discriminating against Muslims in Turkey, what a joke. And the comment about the Patriarch being allowed to enjoy all the freedoms he has today in Istanbul..does that include all the threats, and demonstrations outside of his residence on an almost daily basis, which are ignored by the Turkish government and police. Please, at least make you excuses a little bit more believable.

    • 28. Scriptamus  |  June 17, 2010 at 10:42 PM

      Thanks for your views.

      However here are a few points you may want to consider. Istanbul was first inhabited by Greek colonists from Magara. They named it Bysantium after their King. That was in 667 BC. If it were founded by Christians, that would be a feat as Christ would not be born for more than 600 years after the founding of the City. It then became a Romanized City and Constantine–the first Christian Roman Emperor greatly expanded the city allmost a millineum after its original founding. The Moslem Ottoman Turks captured it from the Christians in 1453. However it was not renamed Istanbul until the 1930s.

      Regarding your belief that the Patriarch has no freedom because his residence is picketed by demonstators, consider this. Not a single person living in the Orthodox facility has ever been killed or even injured by demonstrators (there are many monks in the school who maintain the library and other facilities. If the legal issues could be solved they are ready to open again tomorrow.) There are fundamentalist Moslems who object to the Patriarch and his buildings existing in Istanbul while in Athens, the Greek Government will not allow a single Mosque to be constructed. The do picket and protest, but they are under police survelience at all times. Note that there is not even any property damage. It is true that the police allow the protestors to picket and chant. However, so do our police allow that at the White House. Turkey is the only Moslem nation that meets a reasonable definition of a democracy. At times it is a little heavy handed, and the military has staged coups when they thought the orthodox Moslems were endangering the Secular Republic of Turkey as Ataturk had planned it. However, Greece has been much more autocratic and militaristic. (One of the reasons the two coutnries have so much trouble with each other is that they are very much alike in many ways.) The current Government is as close to a religious one that Turkey has had since the founding of the Republic and the Turks themselves are very split. The orthodox Moslems outside of Turkey hate the secular government and are ALWAYS accusing Turkey of discriminating against serious and pios Moslems. Many inside the country also claim they are discriminated against. Consider the following: Women in Turkey were not allowed to particiapte in public affairs if they were wearing headscarves. In 2008 the current government overturned the ban on headscarves in the univerisities. Even today, a woman may not go to a university in a Burka or a full gown and veil. But consider the following. All Moslem Imams are appointed by the Government and those that are militant or speak out against the secular government and democfracy are not allowed to preach. Turkish children may NOT attend Islamic religious schools instead of public schools. All Moslem religious publications in Turkey can only be published with the approval of the Government and the courts. Turkey deposed the Sultan — the chief secular and religious leader of all of Islam. It is against the law for there to be another yet the combined secular and religious authority is required by the Koran. There are many other examples. But by American standards, orthodox Moslems are clearly discriminated against in Turkey. There is an ideological war going on in Tukey right now between Moslem Modernists, Democrats, and Secularists on the one hand and Moslem , traditionalists, orthodox, and theocracy supporters. It is not clear who will win. Modern Secular Turkey has never been at such a critical and vulnerable state. Many of us Westerners, not realziing that Turkish Moslems are not monolithic sometimes inadvertantly make it harder for the secular forces who could be overrun in a wave of religious fervor as that in most Moslem states.

  • 29. so  |  December 3, 2010 at 9:07 AM


    I have read your text very carefully. Also, given the diversity and quality of the comments accompanying it, I thought I could contribute with a comment.

    The text is a very nice source of historical information. However when it starts to deal with the interpretation of the current political situation of the Turkey, it fails. There is this very simplistic approach you are drawing about Turkey. Namely that the political actors in the country are presented as the secular army on the one hand, and on the other the extremist islamists. And the “scenario” that you are proposing is that the Turkey is in a constant danger of Islamisation, and the military power is the only security of this nation against this islamic excesses. Therefore you are justifying the military coups that have been realized in Turkey (which is a seriously bad mistake!). This is actually, word by word, the political position of the secularist, state party, the Republican Party (CHP, which never got more than 20% of the votes). You are also presenting todays governing party, AKP, as fanatic islamists which are in any occasion ready to transform Turkey into an Islamic state.

    In reality things are much more complicated.

    First of all, the danger of Islamism has to be evaluated better. In a population constituted by a majority of believers (I would say pretty much similar to USA actually), it is hard to install the requirements of a over-secular state. So for example, in the Turkey, today, in the name of secularism, girls of age or higher than 18 are not allowed to enter the university building with their headscarf, while a boy can do it whatever its ideological position is. This is the result of the “state politics” (and this is important. In Turkey, the “state politics” is something completely different than the political view of the government i.e. You don’t necessarily govern if you are in the government in Turkey). In short, the system in Turkey is inspired by the French Jacobinism. However a system close to the one that German’s have today would have functioned much better. In Germany, the state and religion are not as much separated as it is in Turkey and France. So what I am trying to say here is that a wild extreme secularity is not necessarily the best option, and especially not for Turkey.

    Presenting Turkey’s govermental party, AKP, as a party motivated by changing the system is not true. The simplest counter argument for this is that, it was under the government of AKP, Turkey obtained the status of EU candidate country. So how would it be possible to enter in this path and be a fanatic islamist in the same time? Well however it is true that AKP has its background from a population of conservative and religious population (which I don’t think it is fundamentally different than the republican voters in USA or CDU voters in Germany). And it is true also that AKP will also win from the EU membership, as the EU membership involves many many obstacles in the freedom of religion in Turkey ( I gave an example with the young girls not entering the university above).

    In Turkey, where the democratic culture is still very immature (most certainly due to the military coups that occurred every 10 years), todays government is therefore the major source of democratization of the country. It may seem extremely paradoxical to you but this is what I think it always occurred in Turkey, until the process was stopped by militaries who do not really like to have a democratic country. Today in Turkey, there is no other political actor that can make the country democratic.

    This brings me to the point. The freedom. In Turkey today, there is no freedom. List of forbidden internet pages is one of the biggest in the world. Youtube is forbidden since nearly 2 years, any sex/porn related pages are inaccessible, community based dictionaries are forbidden. Kurdish people had and still have problems. Since decades it was forbidden to speak and listen to Kurdish in the streets. If you are religious women, you can not go to the university unless you removed your scarf. If you belong to the Alevi community you would have problems with the sunnite view of mainstream religious politics (suggesting that Turkey’s interpretation of secularism is very strange), your kids have obligatory religion lectures in the primary schools (this started with the military coup in 80). If you are an Armenian, better be silent, because at anytime a extreme nationalist could shot you behind your head in the street (e.g. Hrant Dink).

    And yes, if you are a Greek, you also have problems. If you would have been a Greek in Istanbul, you would have noticed that your community in Turkey had decreased from nearly half a million to 3000 people in Istanbul, today. And this is the “direct” consequence of the state politics. If you are interested in seeing it, you would notice that every 10 year, starting from 40s, including 50s, 60s Greek population of Turkey were “indirectly” forced to leave the country. Take for example,the so-called “wealth tax” applicable only the non-muslim communities. These decisions were taken in the secular republic that you are exalting in your text. And I let to your imagination, what had these greek people (which were citizens of Turkey) experience if they couldn’t pay the wealth tax. But I can tell you that the name of the then prime minister who took this decision, Şükrü Saraçoğlu, is now given to the biggest sport stadium in Istanbul.

    So I hope my message is clear. Started with AKP and ended up with Greeks. Just a last sentence, not surprisingly the remaining Greek community in Turkey, today, would never never give any vote to the republican party. Another hint to understand why it is under the AKP government, and never otherwise, that the discussions about the reopening of Halki School comes to the surface.


  • 30. otto bcn  |  November 2, 2012 at 10:31 PM

    Hey There. I discovered your blog using msn. This is a really well written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and come back to read extra of your helpful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll definitely comeback.


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