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Orthodox Christianity Under Threat

9/15/08 Turkey (International Herald Tribune) When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and his Islamic-rooted party came under fierce fire this summer from secularists, who came close to persuading the country’s supreme court to bar both from politics, he called the campaign an attack against religious freedom and a threat to Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union.

Yet in nearly six years in power, Erdogan has shown no inclination to extend even a modicum of religious freedom to the most revered Christian institution in Turkey – the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the spiritual center of 300 million Orthodox Christians throughout the world. As a result, Turkey ‘s persecution of the Patriarchate looms as a major obstacle to its European aspirations, and rightly so.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which was established in the fourth century and once possessed holdings as vast as those of the Vatican , has been reduced to a small, besieged enclave in a decaying corner of Istanbul called the Phanar, or Lighthouse. Almost all of its property has been seized by successive Turkish governments, its schools have been closed and its prelates are taunted by extremists who demonstrate almost daily outside the Patriarchate, calling for its ouster from Turkey .

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Last year 42 of the 50 members of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Erdogan urging his government to “end all restrictions” on the religious freedom of the Patriarchate, described by Tom Lantos, who then chaired the committee, as “one of the world’s oldest and greatest treasures.” The congressmen urged the Turkish government to join the rest of the world in recognizing the ecumenical standing of the Patriarchate, to return expropriated property, to reopen its schools, including the renowned theological seminary on the island of Halki, and to end all interference in the process of selecting the patriarch, particularly the “continued insistence that he be a Turkish citizen.”

As Orthodox Christians have been systematically persecuted in Turkey and there are now less than 2,500 of them left in the country, the congressmen wrote, the Patriarchate will soon cease to exist if future patriarchs have to be Turkish citizens. “It is the church, not the Turkish state, that should determine who becomes ecumenical patriarch,” their chairman declared.

Despite their letter and other efforts by statesmen from many countries to try to persuade the Turkish government to liberalize their policies toward the Patriarchate, its leaders have not budged – even though they know their stand may harm their chances of entering the European Union.

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Turkey ‘s treatment of the Patriarchate, therefore, must remain a litmus test of its readiness to join the European Union. If Turkey cannot recognize the value of “one of the world’s oldest and greatest treasures” in its own midst, how can it be expected to appreciate and respect the liberal values and traditions that define Europe ? If Turkey insists on entering Europe on its own inflexible terms, the danger that it will overwhelm Europe , engulf it and change it radically cannot be underestimated.

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