At recent Sunday morning services held at Istanbul's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox church, a mere 26 worshipers lined up to receive communion in a nave designed to hold hundreds. With bread in hand they proceeded to circumambulate the church's four main pillars, with some kissing a giant portrait of Jesus, before leaving. The scene helps illustrate the difficulties facing the Turkey's Greek community. In addition to adverse demographic trends, church representatives complain that Turkish property legislation is threatening efforts to sustain Turkey's Greek community.
In a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, religion has served as a cultural anchor for Turkey's rapidly dwindling Greek community. In recent decades, the Greek population in Turkey has fallen from roughly 100,000 to an estimated 20,000 today, about 10 percent of that number located in Istanbul. The Patriarchate in Istanbul has been the center of the Orthodox Church for nearly 2000 years, but it has faced adversity since the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923. Legislation and judicial rulings at various points during the republican era have enabled the nationalization of a large portion of the church's property. Now, the Patriarchate's survival is taking on a sense of urgency. "We don't have a dialogue with the government," said Metropolitan Meliton, who works at the Patriarchate's complex, situated in the Fener neighborhood of Istanbul, along the Bosphorus.
Among the biggest threats to Patriarchate's future is the closure of the Halki seminary, which had trained Orthodox clergy since the 19th century. A 1971 law nationalized religious high schools, and closed the seminary, located on Istanbul's Heybeli Island. The monastery is now surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Visitors, however, can still gain access during the four hours every day that the grounds are open.
With the monastery not functioning, the Patriarchate is facing a personnel crisis. "Now we are very few," said Metropolitan Meliton "We can't find the clergy to continue the life of the Patriarchate."
Meliton -- who trained as a bishop in France under a loophole that has since been closed -- said Turkey requires that the Patriarch and his bishops in the church be filled by Turkish-trained, Turkish citizens. Without Halki however, there are no training facilities in the country for Orthodox clergy. As the Patriarchate's staff ages, the future of the church is coming into question. "I don't know what will happen," said Meliton quietly, looking to the floor of his office, "We are 16 bishops, and nine of us are older than 75."
Several Turkish government officials declined interview requests for this article. However, Education Minister Huseyin Celik said last October that he was opposed the continued closure of the Halki seminary. Nevertheless, no government action has been taken to reopen it.
The fading viability of the Patriarchate poses a direct threat to the Greek community's continued existence in Turkey, some observers say. "The fact that there is a patriarchate with a global appeal and presence gives a raison d'etre to one of the oldest communities in Istanbul," said Alexis Alexandris, Greece's Consul General in Istanbul. Alexandris was born into the city's Greek community in 1951, but left 23 years later with his family. "If there wasn't the patriarchate, given the number of Greeks left in Istanbul, the existence of a minority would not be justified," Alexandris continued. "They would only be individuals."
Under terms of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, the pact that led to modern Turkey's creation, Ankara pledged to protect the rights of ethnic minorities, including Greeks. But Turkey's steadfastly secular system brought all religious institutions under strict state oversight. Property that belonged to religious institutions had to be re-registered. Discrepancies in the titles to many Orthodox Church properties enabled Turkish authorities to seize them. The Turkish government also took legal possession of properties in areas where the Greek community fell below certain levels, either through population exchanges with Greece proper, or through expulsions. The Patriarchate has filed 26 cases with the European Court of Human Rights to recover some of the 18,000 properties it claims to have lost. Church officials are waiting for the court to rule on the cases.
Since the formal start of Turkey's European Union accession process, international attention has been fixed more closely on the Patriarchate's predicament, and, more broadly, on that of the Greek community. The Turkish government has sought to bring the country's legislative framework into compliance with EU standards, and as part of this effort, it has bolstered minority rights, opening the way for the Orthodox Church and other Greek entities to obtain new property. But church representatives and community leaders aren't so interested in obtaining new property as they are in securing the return of properties that have been appropriated by the state over the years. For many Greeks, the return of the Halki seminary is a top priority. "The debate over Halki has become a flash point for religious freedoms in Turkey," said Alexandris.
Some members of the European Union parliament -- such as Germany's Hans Gert Poettering, head the European People's Party (EPP) have expressed support for Orthodox church leaders on the Halki issue. During a visit to Turkey, Poettering cautioned Turkish officials that the continued closure of Halki could damage Turkey's image in some EU countries. "Failure to normalize relations with the Christians who live in Turkey can only fuel the mounting Islamophobia in west-European society," Poettering said in comments posted on the party's web site.
Supporters of the Patriarchate in the United States also are intensifying lobbying efforts. The Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle in New York City, along with several US senators, have urged US President George Bush to raise the church property issue with Turkish leaders.
Last November, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I invited Pope Benedict XVI to Istanbul for the Feast of Saint Anthony, but the Turkish government blocked the request. Many experts in Istanbul believe that the government's refusal was rooted in a desire to avoid stoking the Patriarchate's property issue.
Amid uncertainty, members of Greek community try to remain optimistic. Yanni Theodoru, 70, one of those who attended the recent Sunday services at Holy Trinity said he had faith the Patriarchate would get through its current time of troubles. "It doesn't matter if there are only five Greeks left in Istanbul," he said. "The Patriarchate has to continue, it's our lives. It's two thousand years worth of history."