Turkish Discrimination Against Christian Schools–Or Is It?
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.
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.
Entry filed under: History, Politics. Tags: Ancient Rome, Bartholomew, Byzantium, Christianity, Constantinople, democracy, Eastern Orthodox Chruch, education, equality, freedom of religion, Halki, History, Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, Istanbul, Jews, Kamal Ataturk, madrasses, Moslems, Ottoman Empire, Patriarch of Constantinople, Pope, religion, religious schools, Roman Catholic Church, Roman Empire, schism, secularism, seminaries, separation of church and state, Sharia, Turkey.