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December 1, 2010

Orphanage In Turkey Returned To Ecumenical Patriarchate

November 29, 2010
Associated Press

Turkey complied with a European Court of Human Rights ruling on Monday and returned a 19th-century orphanage to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, the center of Orthodox Christianity around the world.

The move is likely to appease the European Union which also calls on the Turkish government to reopen a Greek Orthodox seminary and return dozens of other properties such as school buildings and churches seized from Jewish and Christian foundations decades ago.

"It is an important development to show respect for law, democracy and minorities," said Cem Murat Sofuoglu, an attorney for the patriarchate, after receiving the title deed. "A right has been taken back."

Turkey took control of the 19th-century building in 1997, many years after it was abandoned, on the grounds that it belonged to another foundation and had fallen into disuse.

The Patriarchate, however, said the government had refused to issued the necessary permits for the maintenance and repair of the structure, one of the largest wooden buildings in the world.

The European court ruled in June that the land was registered to the patriarchate, giving it de facto legal status to the building.

Turkey is also under pressure to reopen a theology school on an island outside Istanbul that trained generations of church leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, until it was closed by Turkey in 1971. The official argument for the seminary's closure is that a religious institution without government oversight is not compatible with the secular institutions of Turkey, a country where all Muslim clerics are trained and paid by the government.

The patriarchate says Ankara refuses to open the seminary because it wants 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.

But in a move to address that problem, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government recently granted Turkish citizenship to 12 senior clerics at the Ecumenical Patriarchate, so that they could succeed the 70-year-old Bartholomew.

The patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453.