Brussels.- Special for the Greek News
The decision by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Archons to honor Turkish Minister of State Egemen Bagis, during an international conference held in Brussels, entitled “Religious Freedom: Turkey’s Bridge to the European Union”, drew criticism by Greece and Cyprus and the Greek American Lobby. Diplomats from both countries in Brussels learned about the decision just a day before the conference, organized by the Order of Saint Andrew, and the Order of Pammakaristos, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Americas and Europe, and the Patriarchal Office in Brussels, November 16-17.
The first International Archon Religious Freedom Conference brought together scholars from the broad array of religious, legal, academic, diplomatic, and journalistic fields, was the first if its kind that focused intensely on Turkey’s treatment of its minority religious populations.
The Ambassadors of both Greece and Cyprus abstained from the ceremony, while Rodi Kratsa, vice president of the European Parliament didn’t appear in the opening. Archbishop Demetrios didn’t leave his chair to participate in the award ceremony.
The Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Americas and Europe, bestowed a plaque on His Excellency, Egemen Bağiş, Minister for European Union Affairs and Chief Negotiator of the Republic of Turkey, commending him for his efforts on behalf of religious minorities in Turkey.
During his address, Bagis criticized Greece for not allowing the opening of a mosque in Athens.
“Yesterday I was in the capital of a European country (he was in Athens). I had to take a late flight to come to Brussels to attend the pray for the Holy Feast of Sacrifice. Because this EU country does not allow to open a mosque. It is obvious that there are steps that need to be taken in some European countries.”
Some of the Archons from U.S. also abstained from the ceremony, saying that awarding Bagis was a serious political mistake, because Turkey has done nothing in improving religious freedon.
“Halki Seminary is still closed, the government doesn’t recognize the Ecumenical character of the Patriarchate and the return of the orphanage has taken place the last day of the timetable set by the European Court”, one of the Archons told the Greek News.
He also pointed out that the award was given to Minister Bagis a day before the Religious Freedom Report of the State Department was issued and less than a month before the evaluation of Turkey’s EU compliance.
“How could we convince U.S. Government and members of U.S. Congress, when the Archons award a member of the Turkish Government?” he told the Greek News.
Recent State Department Religious Freedom Report criticized Turkey’s policies, while Senators Ben Cardin and Bob Menendez raised once again the need for Turkey allow the reopening of Halki and recognize the ecumenical character of the Patriarchate.
Archbishop Demetrios offered an introductory address at the opening dinner at the Conrad Brussels Hotel, the evening of Monday Nov. 15. Dr. Anthony J. Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of St. Andrew welcomed the participants,while Rodi Kratsa Tsagaropoulou, vice-president of the European Parliament, abstained. Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, director of the Liaison Office of the Orthodox Church to the European Union read the Patriarchal Exhortation, and Archbishop Demetrios followed him with the keynote address.
On Tuesday evening, November 16, 2010, Howard W. Gutman, the United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium, held a reception for all Archon Conference speakers and participants at his residence.
On Wednesday, November 17, 2010, the International Archon Religious Freedom Conference concluded with a Grand Banquet for all speakers and participants at the Hilton Hotel in Brussels, Belgium.
EXCERPT’S FROM BAGIS’ SPEECH
• Sultan Mehmet the second, after the conquest of Istanbul had permitted the independent functioning of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. More interestingly, he let the conditions for the foundation of the Armenian Church, which was not allowed in the Byzantine era.
• I am proud to express that today; both churches are still actively functioning after 600-700 years. Again, it was not a coincidence that the Jews exiled from Spain in the 15th century have taken shelter under the Ottoman Empire.
• As the government of Turkey, one of our primary goals is to further sustain this mutual understanding by enabling our citizens to live in harmony and practice their religions freely.
• Turkey, as a secular state, safeguards freedom of religious belief, conscience and conviction through its Constitution and relevant legislation. Nevertheless, there had been times where we encountered shortcomings during the implementation of these laws.
• In the last decade, Turkey has undergone a serious reform process. This socio-economic transformation is continuing. Many of the reforms carried out to raise the living standards of our citizens are in line with the EU accession process. Among these reforms, a number of them are linked to religious freedoms.
• Turkish Government has the political will to address the demands raised by our citizens of the Greek Orthodox minority as well as the Patriarchate. With this constructive spirit, relevant institutions are exploring a viable solution to re-open Heybeliada Theological School on satisfactory terms to all interested parties.
• The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate functions in its own premises, maintains its churches and is treated with utmost respect. The Patriarchate freely carries out its religious activities. It also conducts religious rituals at religiously important venues in various parts of Turkey.
• There is no interference by the Turkish authorities in the appointment of the clergy within the Patriarchate. Indeed, non-Turkish citizen metropolitans will have the chance to be appointed to the Patriarchate’s Holy Synod. Non-Turkish Greek Orthodox Metropolitans attached to the Patriarchate have applied to Turkish citizenship. These applications are being processed with priority in a positive manner, and up to now 12 of them acquired Turkish citizenship.
• I would like to stress that the Fener Patriarch is our institution. The Fener Patriarch is our pride. Turkey is only richer and more powerful with the presence of Fener Patriarch.
• It is also worth mentioning that currently there are more than 100 foreign clergyman registered in Turkey to serve in places of worship with relevant working permit.
Senator Benjamin Cardin, co-chair of the OSCE (Helsinki) Committee raised the issue of the reopening of Halki in the Congressional Record.
“ Mr. President, a year ago this month I was privileged to again meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I. His impassioned call for support for the reopening of the Theological School of Halki promoted me to introduce S. Res. 356, a bipartisan measure calling upon the Government of Turkey to facilitate the reopening of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Theological School of Halki without condition or further delay. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the forced closure on that unique institution by the Turkish authorities, I renew my call for the Government of Turkey to allow the seminary to reopen.
Founded in 1844, the Theological School of Halki , located outside modern-day Istanbul, served as the principal seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate until its forcible closure by the Turkish authorities in 1971. Counted among alumni of this preeminent educational institution are numerous prominent Orthodox scholars, theologians, priests, and bishops as well as patriarchs, including Bartholomew I. Many of these scholars and theologians have served as faculty at other institutions serving Orthodox communities around the world.
Past indications by the Turkish authorities of pending action to reopen the seminary have, regrettably, failed to materialize. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdog 0an met with the Ecumenical Patriarch in August 2009. In an address to a wider gathering of minority religious leaders that day, Erdog 0an concluded by stating, “We should not be of those who gather, talk and disperse. A result should come out of this.” I could not agree more with the sentiment. But resolution of this longstanding matter requires resolve, not rhetoric.
In a positive development this August, the authorities in Ankara, for the first time since 1922, permitted a liturgical celebration to take place at the historic Sumela Monastery. The Ecumenical Patriarch presided at the service, attended by pilgrims and religious leaders from several countries, including Greece and Russia. Earlier this month, a Turkish court ordered the Buyukada orphanage to be returned to Ecumenical Patriarchate. If the transfer of the property occurs, this would be another welcome development, potentially paving the way for the return of scores of other church properties seized by the government. In 2005, the Helsinki Commission, which I chair, convened a briefing, “The Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey: A Victim of Systematic Expropriation.” The Commission has consistently raised the issue of the Theological School for well over a decade and will continue to closely monitor related developments.
Yesterday’s release of the 2010 Report on International Religious Freedom is a reminder of the challenges faced by Orthodox and other minority religious communities in Turkey. I urge the Turkish Prime Minister to ensure respect for the rights of individuals from these groups to freely profess and practice their religion or beliefs, in keeping with Turkey’s obligations as an OSCE participating state.
The 1989 OSCE Vienna Concluding Document affirmed the right of religious communities to provide “training of religious personnel in appropriate institutions.” The Theological School of Halki served that function for over a century until its forced closure nearly four decades ago. The time has come to allow the reopening of this unique institution without further delay.”
Last Wednesday, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) asked Suzan Johnson Cook, Ambassador to be at Large for International Religious Freedom, how high on her agenda would she place the issues concerning the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
“As you may know the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, Turkey is the spiritual head of the second largest Christian church in the world. He is also the spiritual head of all of those parishes in my own state from which I hear quite a bit. It has been a challenge for the Ecumenical Patriarch in Turkey. There have been a multitude of problems including the confiscation of 95% of the Patriarchate’s properties and the Prime Minister’s interference with the selection of succeeding Ecumenical Patriarchs. Now, some of us see a dim flicker of light at the end of this very long tunnel but the situation continues to be intolerable. How high on your agenda would you place this matter?” Menendez asked Cook.
Suzan Cook said, she was “very fortunate at the White House Prayer Breakfast this April to sit with both Father Alex [Karloutsos] and Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox [Church]. And, I also had the opportunity to serve as Police Chaplain in New York with the Greek Orthodox Father Poulos. So this information has been on my radar for quite a while. It would be high on my priorities. There has been some progress but now the plan to open Halki Seminary and for those successors to Bartholomew to have an opportunity to become citizens so there is some progress, but there still are some serious concerns, and it would be high on my priority list.”