July 11, 2009

A Turkish Perspective on the Rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Below is an interesting column published yesterday in the Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman which offers a Turkish opinion on the future of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and a method on how it should go about obtaining its rights to reopen Halki Seminary. The author of this piece accuses the Ecumenical Patriarchate's methods in obtaining its rights as if it was "waiting for Godot" and proposes that the Ecumenical Patriarchate take legal action against Turkey to assume its rights as valid Turkish citizens.

The problem that I see with the opinion in this article is that it offers a lot of "could have" solutions instead of "would have" solutions. Litigation on a matter does not guarantee the judgment will be in your favor. If litigation were pursued against the Turkish government by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to obtain everything it asked for it could in turn also backfire and cause the total annihilation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as well. The stance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not an "old world" policy nor is it a matter of "waiting for Godot" (for those not familiar with the novel Waiting for Godot, there is a promise that a character in the story named Godot would come to save the characters in the story but in the end the promise remains unfulfilled). It is a wise strategic move that allows for the possibility of survival in a hostile country, which in the end has a far better chance for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to receive its rights as Turkish citizens than a legal process that could be manipulated to go either way and thus close the Ecumenical Patriarchate forever. 

Is the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Turkey Waiting for Godot?

10 July 2009, Friday
Today's Zaman

Since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power in 2002, the reopening of the Halki Seminary has repeatedly returned to the political agenda in Turkey.

There is almost a pattern. Some government officials say, “There is no harm in reopening the school [which was closed down in 1971], and there are some preparations taking place to that effect.” If you read these statements you can get the (wrong) impression that there is only technical work needing to be done, and the government is working on it. For the last seven years, we have heard exactly the same story. But, in the end, nothing comes out. Why?

Because the Halki Seminary is only a part of a much more complex question that may not be well appreciated even by the government itself. The question is namely the existence of the ecumenical patriarchate in Turkey. There is a deep-rooted state policy that has brought the patriarchate to the verge of total extinction. This policy was shaped during the late Ottoman and early republican era and has been applied vigorously since then. This is a policy of taking gradual steps to push this historical institution into a corner to force it to choose one of the two options: Either it will stay in Turkey and will lose everything slowly and painfully, or it will leave Turkey once and for all.

The lesser of two evils

The name of the street in front of the patriarchate is Sadrazam Ali Paşa (Sadrazam means grand vizier). Ali Paşa was the state official who hanged Patriarch Gregorios over the front door of the patriarchate in 1821. His name was given to the very street to which the patriarchate opens its doors every day. It is a constant reminder of the “past,” of course. (I suggest the EU Commission get this onto their agenda and encourage the government to change this name showing some respect to this historical institution.) Neither was it a coincidence that a so-called “Turkish Orthodox Church” was established in the early years of the Turkish Republic. The Turkish Orthodox Church was designed to fight against the ecumenical patriarchate and was established with financial aid provided by the state. Papa Eftim, so-called patriarch of the Turkish Orthodox Church, had spent his entire life in war with the ecumenical patriarchate. We now know that the Ergenekon (deep state) gang held some of its strategic meetings on the premises of the Turkish Orthodox Church. Sevgi Erenol, press spokesperson of this church, is now in prison for being one of the high-ranking members of this gang.

During all these years, the Turkish state not only fought against the patriarchate with these kinds of puppet “institutions,” but also pursued a very active policy to create an atmosphere in which the patriarchate could not breathe. Thousands of acres of land and buildings that belonged to the patriarchate and its associated institutions have been taken one by one through legal trickery (the biggest one was carried out by the Court of Cassation in 1974, making property ownership by minority foundations legally invalid after 1936), expropriations and so on. Turkey has never recognized the legal identity of the ecumenical patriarchate, even though it has to recognize these kinds of structures under the Treaty of Lausanne. The question of the legal status of the patriarchate has never been solved. This “legal gap” of course was created to add to the uncertainty from which the patriarchate has suffered deeply.

Impossibility of choosing new patriarch

One of the biggest constraints, though, has been applied through excessive control over the election process of the ecumenical patriarch. According to Turkish official policy, the patriarch only represents Turkish citizens of Greek descent in Turkey. Therefore, the patriarchate and the Holy Council that will elect him should only be composed of Turkish citizens. Just to remind you, we have only 3,000-4,000 Orthodox citizens remaining in İstanbul, and most of them are elderly people. Look at the closure of the Halki Seminary from this perspective as well; most of the patriarchs were educated in this institution. We seem to have reached this formula: The new patriarchate has to be elected from a handful of citizens of Greek descent, and the very school that will raise the new patriarch has been closed for almost four decades. How can an eligible, qualified patriarch possibly be chosen?

I honestly believe in the goodwill of this government. If they were alone, they would open the Halki Seminary. However, as soon as they make a real attempt to this effect, they will have a sharp confrontation with the nationalist front. Even if they overcome the opposition coming from the nationalist front (political parties and bureaucracy), the “formula” (there are some different legal avenues through which the government could choose to open the school) the government has created will somehow come before one of the high courts. If the government makes legal changes, they will be reviewed by the Constitutional Court; if they open the school with administrative directions, their actions will be evaluated by the Council of State and so on. These high courts' approach to minority-related issues are very well known, and they have played an important role in the creation of the current situation that minority groups find themselves in.

The dance

I have tried to provide a brief historical perspective to show you the state policy concerning the ecumenical patriarchate. The application of this state policy would not have been possible without having the active contribution of the ecumenical patriarchate. This is a dance that has been going on for many decades. This is a dance of the “deep state” and the ecumenical patriarchate -- a dance of aggression and submission. It is hard to believe, but we know that the patriarchate has never tried to take recourse to legal remedies, except for property-related issues. During these long years, Turkey has signed and ratified many different human rights conventions. Turkey's Constitution has been changed, these international legal instruments have gained precedence over domestic laws and many other laws have been replaced with new ones. But again, the patriarchate has never tried any legal instruments to gain new rights, hoping that this “loyalty” will be appreciated one day. The patriarchate, in maintaining its passive role, has missed some crucial points. Taking recourse to legal instruments may also be read as a sign of being well integrated in the country in which you exist. Citizens use legal action, right? And using legal action shows that you feel you are a citizen of the country concerned, you have confidence in the legal system to a certain degree. In addition, obtaining a positive judgment from a national or international court would have provided a good excuse and an acceptable pretext for this government to make some legal reforms in favor of the patriarchate. No one, for example, could have ever stopped Abdullah Öcalan's execution when he was captured and brought to Turkey. However, the decision of the European Court of Human Rights brought huge relief to the nationalist government coalition in power in 1999; they attributed all “responsibility” to the European court, and later on the “death penalty” was lifted altogether. And finally, pursuing an active litigation policy never meant that you are close to fruitful cooperation with state authorities. On the contrary, active litigation means that you will always be at the negotiation table as a quiet, powerful party that is backed by the power of judgments from international courts and public opinion.

If you ask me, the patriarchate could have obtained and deeply benefited from a favorable judgment of the European court on the question of the Halki Seminary a long time ago. They could also have done the same thing for their legal identity problems and for the constraints surrounding the election process of a new patriarch. Instead they preferred to maintain their old policies, which allowed this historical institution to be brought to the verge of total extinction.

Will Godot come? We will see…