Ecumenical Patriarch's Letter to Turkish Prime Minister

May 1, 2007

BOSTON, MA - In a confidential letter to Recep Tayyip Erdogan dated August 28, 2003 (Protocol Number 801), just a few months after Mr. Erdogan was elected prime minister of Turkey, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople importunes the Turkish Government to change its policies and political stance towards the Patriarchate.

In his letter, the Patriarch noted that, "in the year 1927, 100 thousand Greeks lived in Constantinople. Today, that number has been shrunk to 2,000 and even less," and refers to the "extermination" of the Greek Orthodox population in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul).

The Patriarch also made particular reference to the law which stipulates that candidates for the Patriarchy must be Turkish citizens. In the letter, the Patriarch said this law is "irrational," stating that, "unless this rule changes in the near future, there will be no one to become Patriarch."

The Patriarch cited the Turkish Government's interference in the Patriarchal election process, and asked that it stop. He also requested that, in the event a candidate is not already a Turkish citizen, Turkish citizenship be granted to whichever hierarch is elected Patriarch after his election, pointing to the late Patriarch Athenagoras, who was elected Ecumenical Patriarch from his position as Archbishop of America, as an example (Athenagoras was the only Ecumenical Patriarch in the recent history who was elected Patriarch without first being a Turkish citizen. He traveled to Constantinople as an elected Patriarch on Air Force One under President Truman).

"The Prefecture of Constantinople intervened twice since the year 1923, without any legal basis. The first time was on 6-12-1923, with a simple communiqué which stated that the candidate and the electors must be Turkish citizens, and that their jurisdiction is limited to the boundaries of Turkey," Bartholomew told Mr. Erdogan, adding that the second interference occurred "in the year 1970, again by the Prefecture of Constantinople."

At that time, Turkish authorities deleted a number of hierarchical candidates for the Patriarchy. "That interference," Bartholomew stated, "was in contradiction with reality and the internationally applied rules, and relegates the Patriarchate to the last row among other institutions in Constantinople."

Turkish authorities had "threaten to appoint a Patriarch based upon the absolute discretion of the Prefect, if the directives of Turkish authorities were not followed," the Patriarch wrote, telling Mr. Erdogan that "both those restrictive documents from Turkish authorities contradict the existing legislation of Turkey, as well as the international law," and asking the Turkish Premier to revoke them: "Those two texts of the Prefecture of our city embarrass our country internationally as a country that oppresses religious minorities."

Bartholomew did not sign the letter to Mr. Erdogan as Ecumenical Patriarch, but as "the Rum Patriarch of Istanbul, Bartholomew I (Patriarch of the Romans)," simply because the Turkish Government does not allow him to send official documents as Ecumenical Patriarch, but only as the religious leader of the Greek Orthodox community of Constantinople.

In his letter, the Patriarch described the tragic plight of Constantinople's Greek Orthodox minority, citing heavy-handed oppression of the most basic rights - individual, collective and ecclesiastical - to the point that the Patriarchate is not even legally recognized. "The Treaty of Lausanne is either not applied at all, or it is severely violated," the Patriarch asserts.

"Since the year 1923, policy has been formed in such a way that all the non Muslim elements of the country are considered foreign and dangerous, and aims at their gradual extermination. This policy impacts on the historic existence of our Patriarchate," Bartholomew writes.

The Patriarch also highlighted the forcible shutdown of the Theological School at Halki, explaining why its closing in 1971 was illegal, and calls upon the Turkish Government to allow the school to reopen, and also to allow the enrollment of students outside of Turkey, because it is restricted only to Turkish citizens the reopening, "which will be useless due to the limited number of Greek Orthodox in Constantinople today."

Bartholomew requested that "permission be granted to clergy from outside of Turkey to work for the needs of the churches, either by granting a work permit or Turkish citizenship."

One of the most crucial problems Turkish policies are causing the Ecumenical Patriarchate is its legal status, to the extent that the Patriarchate does not have the right to exercise its pastoral and administrative responsibilities.

The Patriarch reminded Mr. Erdogan that, according to the Charter of the Patriarchate of 1862, "the Patriarchate is a legal entity under the Ottoman Rule of Law," and states that "the General Department of Vakoufia (Department of Religious Property) purposely distorts the facts and attempts to confuse the issue, claiming that the Patriarch is not considered a legal entity, although the issue is not the Patriarch as an individual, but the Patriarchate."

Bartholomew accused the Turkish Government of using "double standards, always aiming toward a negative outcome of the Greek Orthodox minority's issues." He requests that Mr. Erdogan and the Turkish Government "recognize the Patriarchate as a special legal entity according to the Articles of the Treaty of Lausanne, so the Patriarchate can assume jurisdiction over its parishes, monasteries, shrines, cemeteries, schools and philanthropic institutions."

The Patriarchate does not even have the right to defrock a clergyman for ethical reasons, Bartholomew said: "The Patriarchate faces terrible consequences when it intervenes to discipline its clergy, but the same does not apply to Muslim clergy. When the Patriarchate defrocks a clergyman, it is taken to the courts, and threats are even used against the Patriarch and other members of the administration of the Ecumenical Patriarchate."

In his letter, the Patriarch also pointed out that Turkey does not recognize the ecumenicity of the Patriarchate, which the Turkish State simply considers a Turkish institution, which appeals only to those Greek Orthodox living within the boundaries of Constantinople, and of Turkey in general. The Patriarch has thus been warned many times against using the title "ecumenical," even most recently during Pope Benedict XVI's historic visit to the Patriarchate this past December.

"The name ecumenical is a Greek word, and it has been in use since the 6th Century. It is a title given by the Ecumenical Synods to the Patriarch of Constantinople. According to Orthodox Christian tradition, our Patriarchate has continuously served the religious needs of the entire Orthodox Christian pleroma (congregation) of the Church, and it is considered ecumenical because it exercises spiritual jurisdiction and duties over all the oicoumene (inhabited world)," the Patriarch wrote, adding that the term, ecumenical, "has nothing to do with the idea of an Ecclesiastical State such as the Vatican, and the use of this title does not mean that we have wider political objectives; neither does it carry the connotation of a state within a state."

In his letter, the Patriarch also tried to explain to Mr. Erdogan that the Ecumenical Patriarchate "has a primacy-coordinating position, primus inter pares (first among equals), in the system of the Orthodox Church worldwide," adding that, "Today, our Patriarchate has jurisdiction in many countries of Europe and the Americas, and about 40 active Metropolises belong to it, as well as thousands of parishes and philanthropic institutions, and the election of bishops and archbishops is done directly by the Holy & Sacred Synod of our Patriarchate."

The Patriarch invited Mr. Erdogan to adopt a policy "similar to the one that exists in Western countries, according to which the State does not become involved in religious affairs and allows the faithful to govern their religious institutions without any restrictions; nor does it consider those institutions harmful to the security of the country."

The Patriarch also reminded the Turkish Prime Minister that the Patriarchate, "in every instance, supports Turkey's admission to the European Union, because it believes that the Government will improve the quality of life of its citizenry, and that it will contribute to solutions for all the problems concerning the Greek Orthodox minority and our Patriarchate in a democratic spirit far from every jaundice afflicting society."

Mr. Erdogan did not respond to the Patriarch's letter.

(From The National Herald - April 21, 2007, by Theodore Kalmoukos)