His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America addressed the solemn anniversary of Turkey’s abrupt closure of the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary in 1971, ending the institution’s work of educating generations of clergymen.
Interviewed by Dwight Bashir of the United States Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF), the Archbishop of the Americas made his remarks the on the podcast “USCIRF Spotlight.”
His Eminence appeared on the program on the sad occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the closure of the venerable Theological School of Halki in 1971.
His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros became Dean of Theological School of Halki in 2011, as well as Abbot of the Holy Patriarchal Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which was founded by St. Photios the Great in the ninth century on the island of Halki, next to the Seminary.
Halki Seminary closure “huge loss” for Orthodoxy
Asked what the closure has meant for the history of the GreekOrthodox Church — and that it portends for the future — the Archbishop said “Such an institution, which is the center of Orthodoxy all over the world, to be deprived of the possibility of educating clergy and future bishops, means a huge loss, not only for the Patriarchy but also for the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchy, among others in the United States.
“The impact of its closure — as you state, it has been fifty years — means we lost two generations of priests and clergy and bishops of the Church, who (have not been) educated in the only school that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has in Istanbul.”
“The Ecumenical Patriarchate, like all other churches, has its own traditions, its own mentality and mindset. If we cannot educate your own clergy with your own mindset, then you have an influence from other areas of the world which are not always compatible with your tradition.
“I do not mention the violation of human rights and religious freedom which is behind that. That is another chapter. There are so many dimensions of this closure that we have to take into account.
“For the future of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and its leadership, the Turkish government has made positive steps in the last years,” he admitted. “These steps are providing and offering Turkish citizenship to those bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to those bishops who wish to have the Turkish nationality as a second citizenship.
“But this doesn’t solve the problem,” the Archbishop noted. Granting Turkish nationality to prelates from outside Turkey doesn’t make up for the problem created by the closure of the Seminary.
“As Americans, we cannot understand”
“Turkey loses a lot by not providing the Ecumenical Patriarchate this opportunity to educate its future priests in Istanbul,” he said, as they are not provided the opportunity to experience the mentality and the traditional experience of “peaceful coexistence and love and cooperation with people from all cultures, languages and religions.
“This is not something that you have by just being granted Turkish nationality,” he pointed out.
Asked what the justification is now for the continued closure of the school and why it has been tied to reciprocity from Greece, the Archbishop explained that the official explanation in 1971 was that it was not a public school and therefore was closed, like all other private institutions of higher education at the time in the country.
Yet, he adds, there are many, many private universities now in that country — the only exception being Halki Seminary. That means, he says ‘There are other reasons there, and not the letter of the law” regarding why it is still closed.
The idea of reciprocity, he said, involves “the real reason behind the Turkish government’s decision to close our theological school. I remind you that, in 1971 as it is today, the Cyprus issue was at the center of Greek and Turkish relations and created much tension.”
Reciprocity shouldn’t be linked to Halki Seminary issue
When this happens, the Archbishop explained, “The ethnic and religious minorities suffer. The Greeks of Istanbul suffered under these tensions between the two countries and the price among others that we paid, was the closure of the theological school.
“I don’t really understand this idea of reciprocity,” he stated, “for several reasons. First of all, is the human rights and freedom of religion issue. You cannot base your arguments on reciprocity. Even if you think a country is violating the religious freedom of a minority in that nation, this is not a reason for you to do the same in your country.
“And this is exactly what’s happening now,” he charged. “I am speaking now as an American, representing all Greek-Americans — and all Americans. Because as Americans, we cannot understand.
“When we sit with Turkey and express our expectations for respect of the religious rights and freedoms of our mother Church in Constantinople we cannot understand why this has anything to do with anything that is happening in Athens or elsewhere in the country.”
“We are Americans. We offer all freedom and human rights,” the Orthodox prelate underscored.
“We expect an ally of the United States — which hosts the mother church of the Archdiocese of the Americas — that our mother church would enjoy the same rights and freedoms that are enjoyed here.”
The young Archbishop — who was born in Turkey — also pointed out other difficulties the Ecumenical Patriarchate faces currently in Turkey, including the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has no legal standing under Turkish law.
Bashir emphasized several times in the interview that the USCIRF “has regularly noted the continued closure of the Halki Seminary as a longstanding religious freedom violation in the country.”
The Archbishop concluded his remarks by noting that he remained hopeful that the Theological School of Halki will reopen in the near future, making it clear what that would mean for religious freedom, for the Church and the world.