EU chief visits Orthodox patriarchate in Constantinople

The president of the European Commission met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in a visit to the Orthodox Patriarchate based in Constantinople on Friday.

Jose Manuel Barroso is on the second day of a three-day visit to Turkey, which is vying for EU membership. On Thursday, Barroso welcomed a Turkish decision to return property, such as school buildings, churches and orphanages, seized from Jewish and Christian foundations decades ago.

Barroso said the move was "a welcome step forward to address the difficulties of non-Muslim religious communities."

Turkey had seized the properties in 1974, around the same time it invaded Cyprus after a failed coup by supporters of uniting the island with Greece.

On Friday, Barroso and Bartholomew were expected to discuss Turkey's resistance to reopen a Greek Orthodox seminary that was shut down more than two decades ago despite pressure from the EU and the U.S.

The Halki Theological School on Heybeliada Island near Istanbul was closed to new students in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control in the predominantly Muslim country. The school closed its doors in 1985, when the last five students graduated.

The official argument for the seminary's closure is that a religious institution without government oversight is not compatible with secular institutions of Turkey, a country where all Muslim clerics are trained and paid by the government, and are handed scripts of Friday sermons by a state agency.

Bartholomew says Ankara refuses to open the seminary because it aims to prevent the church from raising new leaders. The church's leader has to be a Turkish citizen, which makes it difficult for the dwindling Greek community of several thousand to produce any candidates.

Turkey's reluctance to reopen it stems from a deep mistrust many here feel toward the patriarchate because of its traditional ties with Greece, Turkey's historical regional rival.

Turkey does not recognize Bartholomew's international role as spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians worldwide. It rejects his use of the title "ecumenical," or universal, arguing instead that the patriarch is merely the spiritual leader of Istanbul's dwindling Orthodox community.

The patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the 1,100-year-old Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, today's Istanbul, in 1453.

Source: International Herald tribune