Posted: Friday, January 25, 2008, 11:16 (GMT)
Greece's prime minister pledged support on Thursday for the rights of Turkey's tiny Greek Orthodox community during an audience with Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of the world's Orthodox Christians.
Costas Karamanlis is on the second day of an official visit to Turkey that caps a steady thaw in bilateral relations as the two ancient rivals try to set aside disputes over Cyprus and the Aegean and focus on booming trade and business links.
Istanbul is the ancient seat of Orthodox Christianity but Greek Orthodox, who make up 20,000 of the Turkey's 71 million people, often complain of discrimination and prejudice in the predominantly Muslim but secular country.
"I am fully aware of the difficulties of the present time. In the struggle to defend the Patriarchate's rights we will not waver, we will not back down," Karamanlis told reporters after his meeting with Bartholomew.
"The opening of the Halki seminary is a top priority for us," he said, referring to a training college for priests shut down by Turkish authorities in 1972.
Bartholomew has said failure to reopen the seminary, located on an island near Istanbul, could spell the end of the Greek Orthodox church in Turkey. The European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, has also called for the reopening of the school.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a pious Muslim, said on Wednesday after talks with Karamanlis in the capital Ankara that his government was working on the problem.
Some Turks fear reopening the Halki seminary will lead to a relaxation of laws governing Muslim schools in Turkey, which still keeps religion under tight state control and fears a possible increase in militant Islam.
Bartholomew, an ethnic Greek but Turkish citizen, said he hoped Karamanlis's visit would cement better ties with Turkey.
"We believe the people of Turkey and Greece can live in love and brotherhood under the same sky, which we hope will never be clouded by conflict," the bearded patriarch said.
Bartholomew has also been locked in a dispute with Turkey over his use of the ancient title "ecumenical", which means "universal" in Greek. Turkey argues that the title has political overtones that could undermine Turkish sovereignty.
Erdogan seemed to signal a softer stance on Wednesday when he said the title was an internal matter of the Orthodox Church.
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.
Istanbul, the former Constantinople, was capital of the Greek-speaking Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire for centuries until it fell to Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453.
History was also keenly felt earlier on Thursday when Karamanlis visited the mausoleum in Ankara housing the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic who once drove Greek armies into the sea.
Karamanlis laid a wreath at Ataturk's tomb but did not visit the mausoleum's museum, which celebrates Turkey's crushing military victory over Greece in 1922 with models, pictures, memorabilia and recordings of martial music.
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