2012-02-22

Bartholomew outlines minority problems for parliament

The Orthodox Christian patriarch is hopeful the new constitution will address the Orthodox communities' demands.

By Menekse Tokyay for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 22/02/12

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When the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew stood before the parliamentary sub-commission tasked with preparing a new constitution on Monday (February 20th), it marked the first time that a religious minority group had been called to voice their opinions to parliament.

  • Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (centre) spoke before the parliament this week. [Reuters]

    Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (centre) spoke before the parliament this week. [Reuters]

Recognizing the emergence of a new Turkey, the leader of the Orthodox Christian community said Turkey has taken great steps forward, but that the small ethnic Greek minority had been treated like "second-class citizens". In his address, Bartholomew noted a number of problems facing minorities, and their demands from the new constitution -- the common denominator being equal rights.

Speaking to SES Türkiye, the spokesman of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Dositheos Anagnostopoulos said the patriarch was grateful for the opportunity provided by the parliament.

"Through the words of the patriarch, the Turkish people once again learned that we are a part of the people … and we would like to share the same rights and responsibilities."

The parliamentary sub-committee has been taking the views of NGOs, individuals and religious representatives for the past several months in an effort to draw up a consensus-based constitution.

"The religious minorities, determined by the Treaty of Lausanne [Greeks, Armenians, and Jews], are citizens of the Turkish Republic. Therefore, they have equal rights to participate in the process to prepare a new constitution as much as other citizens," ruling AKP deputy, and head of the Constitutional Conciliation Commission, Burhan Kuzu told SES Türkiye.

In his speech, the patriarch renewed his demand for the Greek Orthodox seminary on the island of Heybeliada (Halki) to be reopened. The Orthodox Church's only facility to train clergy in Turkey has been closed since 1971.

The current law requires that Orthodox Christian clergy and teachers be Turkish citizens -- including the patriarch -- a regulation that could ultimately threaten the church's survival. Though the Ecumenical Patriarchate oversees 60 churches in and around Istanbul, it only has 28 priests qualified to perform the liturgy. It also suffers from a lack of teachers and monks.

Protected under the Treaty of Lausanne, the seminary should not fall under the restrictions of the Higher Education Board, which would control its syllabus, instruction and appointment of staff, the patriarch said.

Bartholomew also underlined the need to employ non-Muslim minorities in influential positions of the state bureaucracy.

Opposition CHP deputy Riza Turmen, who sits on the commission, pointed out that there is no legal restriction on non-Muslims holding positions in the state bureaucracy.

"This is not a problem that can be solved by the constitution. After all, there is no legal restriction in the constitution for the minority groups to hold such posts," he said, acknowledging the need for the bureaucracy to change its mentality towards religious minorities.

Bartholomew also demanded the government fund minority schools, places of worship and staff, just as the ministry of religious affairs provides funding for mosques, imams and training.

"Until now there has been no state aid for any churches or minority schools," he said. "If we are talking of equality, this equality should be present in all areas."

The patriarch also addressed the issue of religious foundations, demanding legal recognition to allow them to acquire property.

Turmen told SES Türkiye that last November's court decision to return an orphanage building back to the Patriarchate was a de facto recognition of their legal entity. "However, now there should be a de jure legal entity to overcome all possible problems," he said.

As a next step, the commission is planning to gather the information obtained from the representatives of all religious minority groups living in Turkey, including Assyrians, Jews and Armenians.

"Taking into account the information provided by minority representatives, we'll write up specific reports on specific problems," Turmen said, adding that the reports would act as a guide on issues like freedom of religion and religious property for the new constitution.

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