Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, who visited Patriarch Bartholomew during his visit to İstanbul, said the Patriarchate was indeed a ‘passport’ for the EU aspirant Turkey into the 27-nation bloc.
Recognition of the ecumenical status of the İstanbul-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate should no longer be a "taboo" subject, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said yesterday, triggering curiosity over whether the Turkish government has plans to amend the country's long-established policy on the controversial issue.
Babacan's remarks came in İstanbul in response to a question from a correspondent ahead of his departure for the Swiss ski resort of Davos for the World Economic Forum. His statement followed earlier remarks by PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the issue.
Speaking at a joint press conference held following his meeting with visiting Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on Wednesday, Erdoğan said the government was working on a solution that would allow the patriarchate to reopen a Greek Orthodox seminary in Turkey and emphasized that the government has been doing its best to make things easier for the patriarchate.
"As a matter of fact, the ecumenical issue is an internal issue of the Orthodox Christian world. Turkey's positive attitude [toward the patriarchate] has been revealed in the elections [of patriarchs] and is obvious," Erdoğan said, without elaborating and in an apparent reference to the fact that the patriarchs have been elected freely by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate since the 1923 foundation of the Turkish Republic.
At the same press conference with Erdoğan, Karamanlis said having the patriarchate based in Turkey was "an EU passport" for Turkey.
Babacan initially referred the correspondent to Erdoğan's remarks, describing the issue as "an internal issue" for the Orthodox world.
"Actually, when we look at the issue with a long-term perspective and when we also take Turkey and İstanbul's vision into consideration, perhaps it is an issue on which we should develop a new view. It is an issue we should not consider taboo," Babacan added.
Erdoğan's remarks have already been interpreted as a divergence from Ankara's well-known stance considering the patriarchate a domestic issue since it is by law a Turkish institution.
These remarks led the Reuters news agency to note in its related report that "Erdoğan seemed to signal a softer stance on Wednesday when he said the title was an internal matter of the Orthodox Church." The same report also stated that "Turkish nationalists often accuse Bartholomew of wanting to create a Vatican-style mini-state in the heart of Istanbul, a claim the patriarch and most foreign diplomats reject as absurd."
Yet, a senior diplomat, speaking with Today's Zaman following the prime minister's remarks, made clear that the remarks by no means signal a shift in Ankara's policy. "A change of policy, even the slightest one signaling the possibility of recognition of an 'ecumenical' status for the patriarchate, is out of the question. As a matter of fact, the prime minister's remarks are a reconfirmation of Ankara's stance. What he meant is the fact that Turkey, as a secular state, is not in a position to consider the patriarchate's religious status. It is an internal issue for the Orthodox world," the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
Ankara sees Patriarch Bartholomew as the leader of the Greek Orthodox community, although the world Orthodox community considers him their spiritual leader. Turkey's position puts it at odds with the European Union, with which it is involved in accession negotiations, and Washington, both of which consider the status of the patriarch a matter of religious freedom.
Turkey has also been resisting EU pressure to reopen the Halki seminary on the island of Heybeliada near İstanbul, which was closed to new students in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control. The theological school once trained generations of Greek Orthodox leaders, including the current patriarch. The seminary remained open until 1985, when the last five students graduated.
An ethnic Greek but a Turkish citizen, Bartholomew says the dwindling Orthodox community could soon die out in Turkey if the seminary is not reopened.
The same diplomat also noted that Erdoğan's remarks describing the ecumenical controversy as an "internal matter," could also be interpreted as a reference to ongoing divides within the Orthodox world. Bartholomew is called the "first among equals" among the Orthodox leaders, but he wields little real power over the world's more than 250 million Orthodox souls. That power rests with the patriarchs of the various self-governing churches, the largest of which is the Russian Orthodox Church of Patriarch Alexy II. The Russian Orthodox Church is said to be increasingly aggressive in contesting the leadership of Bartholomew.