Leader of 300 Million Orthodox Christians Talks to CBS’60 Minutes About The Hardships He And His Followers Face in Turkey.
New York.- Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the 300 million-member Orthodox Christian Church, feels “crucified” living in Turkey under a government he says would like to see his nearly 2,000-year-old Patriarchate die out. His All Holiness speaks to 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon for a story expected to be broadcast this Sunday, Dec. 20, at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Even before the broadcasting of the interview the reactions were strong. The 60 Minutes CBS preview was publicized around the world and members of Congress. Congresswoman Iliana Ros-Lehtinen in a letter to all member of Congress informing the on the interview, points out that “the Turkish government has imposed numerous restrictions on the Patriarchate, which not only infringe upon the basic religious freedom of its followers, but in fact the future existence of the Church.”
Iliana Ros raises the issues of the refusal of the Turkish government to allow the reopening of the Halki Theologian Seminary, the limiting of the possible successors of the Patriarch to only 14 hierarchs and the refusal to recognize the ecumenical character of the Patriarchate.
Recently, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate in the occasion of the Patriarchal visit to the United States, voted unanimously resolutions in support of the Patriarchate.
Both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden raised the issue with the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, during their meeting at the White House, December 7. President Obama, who met with Archbishop Demetrios last Monday, briefed him on the meeting.
Bartholomews interview and some strong reactions by Turkish nationalists have alerted the Archdiocese of America, who informed the U.S. Government to take every precaution.
A CBS press statement says that Orthodox Christians trace their roots to the earliest days of Christianity but do not answer to papal authority in Rome. Bartholomew is, in effect, their pope. The Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey, dates back to Roman times, when the city, then Constantinople, was the center of Christianity.
Since then, history has seen the Patriarch and the part of his church in Turkey – who are Turkish citizens of Greek ancestry – discriminated against in their traditional homeland inside what has become modern Turkey, where 99 percent of the people are Muslim. One and a half million were expelled in 1923 and another 150,000 left after violent anti-Christian riots in Istanbul in 1955. A population once numbering near two million is now around 4,000.
“It is not [a]crime…to be a minority living in Turkey but we are treated as…second class,” Bartholomew tells Simon. “We don’t feel that we enjoy our full rights as Turkish citizens.”
CBS points out that Turkish authorities closed churches, monasteries and schools, including its only orthodox Seminary, the Halki School of Theology. According to Turkish law the only potential successors to Bartholomew must be Turkish born and trained at the Halki. “[The Turkish government] would be happy to see the Patriarchate extinguished or moving abroad, but our belief is that it will never happen,” says Bartholomew.
Leaving Turkey is not an option for Bartholomew, the 270th Patriarch, because his church was founded there 17 centuries ago.
The area, Anatolia, is where the young Christian Church began to grow after its beginnings in the Holy Land near Jerusalem. Right in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia can be found, the first great church in Christianity; the four gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John were written in Turkey; in the Cappadocia region, hundreds of chapels contain amazing artwork – probably the oldest Christian art in the world – from the time Rome was ruled by the Caesars. The oldest continuously operating Christian monastery in the world in the Sinai desert in Egypt. It contains a letter that Muslims do not refute was written by the Prophet, Mohammad; the letter instructs Muslims to protect the Christians in the monastery and to respect their faith throughout the world.
Bartholomew finds the letter ironic. “I have visited the prime minister, many ministers, submitting our problems…asking to help us,” he tells Simon. But no help has come his way from the Turkish government, which prides itself on being secular and fears any special treatment for Orthodox Christians could lead to inroads by other religions, especially Islam.
The Patriach is determined to hold his ground. “This is the continuation of Jerusalem and for us an equally holy and sacred land. We prefer to stay here, even crucified sometimes,” says Bartholomew. Asked by Simon if he feels crucified, His All Holiness replies, “Yes, I do.”