On the picturesque island of Buyukada in the Marmara Sea about an hour’s ferry ride from Istanbul, tourists climb a steep track through pine trees to peer through locked gates at the decaying remains of an old Greek orphanage.
Sealed behind crumbling walls, reinforced with ornate rusting bedsteads, the derelict property, formerly the Prinkipo Orphanage, is six stories high and 100 meters long. Valued at 80 million euros, the structure is reputed to be Europe’s largest wooden building.
It also has been the focal point of a legal battle that has seen Turkey’s fragile Greek community assert its rights, amid jockeying between Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and entrenched secularists, for control of the country’s cultural identity. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archives.]
Built in 1898 and originally intended as a hotel, the old orphanage building was acquired in 1902 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the senior church of the world’s Orthodox Christians. After running it as an orphanage, the church stopped using the building in 1964 as Turkey's Greek population experienced a precipitous decline. In 1997, the property was seized by the Turkish state.
Five years ago, the church took its battle to recover the building to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In July 2008, the court delivered a unanimous verdict condemning the seizure. And on June 15 of this year, another court ruling ordered Turkey to return it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate within three months and to pay 26,000 euros in compensation.
“We are extremely happy about the decision,” said Father Dositheos Anagnostopoulos, a spokesman for the Patriarchate. He added that the church wants to turn the former orphanage building into a center for inter-faith dialogue and environmental study.
Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s chief negotiator for European Union accession talks, told the state-run Anatolia News Agency that the government had agreed to work with the church to restore the building.
Father Dositheos said that even before the ECHR ruling, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had opened a dialogue with Islamist AKP officials. “We are now able to speak with this government- something in the past that never happened,” said Father Dositheos, speaking to Eurasianet.org at the Patriarchate’s headquarters in Istanbul’s Fener District.
An open channel of communication, however, does not ensure that broader problems facing the church can be easily resolved, some observers contend. Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a leading Turkish lawyer and human rights activist, said the government has not done much to reverse the effects of decades of punitive laws. “Turkey has had a quite consistent policy towards non-Muslims, namely, to get rid of them,” Cengiz said. “This government might be the most non-Muslim friendly government, but they haven’t initiated a policy to overthrow the old one.”
In 1971, for example, a law banning private religious education led to the closure of the church’s main Halki seminary, making it virtually impossible to train new clergy.
The legal hurdles still threatening the Patriarchate's existence are formidable, and in an interview last December, the church’s leader, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, told the Milliyet newspaper: “We are without oxygen. The Patriarchate is dying.”
Bartholomew is regarded as the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, and his church has existed in Istanbul, formerly know as Constantinople, for more than 1,700 years.
However, the church is not recognized as a legal entity under Turkish law and thus cannot own property. Its establishments are run through separate bodies, which are themselves tightly regulated by the General Directorate of Foundations. Church officials claim that 75 percent of the church’s property has been seized by the directorate over the years.
Repealing or altering legislation covering religious minorities would require the AKP to go up against powerful nationalist elements within the Turkish state. Hugh Pope, an expert affiliated with the International Crisis Group and a long-time observer of the country, told Eurasianet.org: “I think they [The AKP] are serious about wanting to solve the church’s problems, but the limitations on them are quite extreme."
In recent years, the AKP has jousted with conservative secularists who are intent on maintaining the status quo. In 2008, for example, Turkey’s Constitutional Court mulled banning the AKP over the party’s efforts to repeal a controversial law prohibiting women from wearing headscarves in universities was deemed contrary to the country’s secular constitution. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
“These are live problems, and the space that the AKP has to maneuver is very narrow,” said Pope.
Cengiz believes a more proactive approach by the Patriarchate and the other religious minorities is required if it is to capitalize on its ECHR victory. “They only try to get back what they have lost- they don’t fight for new rights. If they decide to change this old stance then this case and others could provide them with strong material to fight,” he said.
"We need to create legal instruments and structures and the Ecumenical Patriarchate and other religious minorities need to unite to work out their common interests,” Cengiz added. "We have huge problems in this area; we have the good will of the government, but quite strong customs and habits which prevent them being solved.”
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where he writes for the Times.