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US State Department Deplores Closing of Halki Seminary 50 Years Ago

Halki Seminary
Halki Seminary in Heybeliada, on the island of Halki, off Istanbul, Turkey. Credit: Darwinek/Wikimedia Commons/ CC-BY-SA-3.0

The age-old Orthodox seminary at Halki, in what is now Turkey, was summarily closed on July 29, 1971 when Turkey ruled that all private institutions of higher learning in the country be closed.

The closing of the seminary has been a point of contention in all the intervening decades, with Archbishop Elpidophoros, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Americas, speaking on the subject earlier this year.

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.”

“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.

“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 Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Thursday issued an announcement, which said “On the fiftieth anniversary of this unjust closure, the U.S. State Department has issued the following call to the Turkish government to respect the freedom of religion and allow for the seminary’s reopening.

“The Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, urgently hopes that the Turkish authorities will heed this call.”

The full text of the State Department statement is as follows:

Closing of Halki Seminary

07/29/2021 08:48 AM EDT

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

“Today marks 50 years since the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled that all institutions of higher education must either nationalize or close, resulting in the closure of the Theological School of Halki, a seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Halki Seminary had operated for 127 years, and its closing deprived the Ecumenical Patriarchate of a training school for Orthodox clergy in Turkey, its home for 1,690 years. Since Halki’s closure, those wishing to become Orthodox clergy have been forced to go abroad for their training.

“The United States continues to urge the Turkish government to respect the right to freedom of religion or belief as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and allow the reopening of the Halki Seminary. Moreover, we call upon the government of Turkey to allow all religious groups to again train their clergy within the country.”

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