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Orthodox Christian leader favors constitution promoting religious freedom in Turkey
("Associated Press," February 20, 2012)

Ankara, Turkey - The spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians said Monday that Turkey’s new constitution should grant equal rights to minorities in the country and safeguard religious freedoms.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I met with members of a parliamentary subcommittee seeking an all-party consensus in drawing up a new constitution, which will replace the one ratified in 1982 while Turkey was under military rule. The subcommittee is meeting with non-governmental organizations and representatives of minority groups for input on the drafting of the new laws.

Mostly Muslim Turkey, which is seeking to join the European Union, has small Christian and Jewish communities. The EU has made improved rights for the religious groups a condition for membership.

Turkey’s existing constitution guarantees religious freedom, but when it comes to minority religions the country has long been criticized for restricting the training of clergy and the ownership of places of worship, and for interfering with the selection of church leaders. It also has recognized Bartholomew I as the leader of the local church in Turkey, but not as ecumenical patriarch of all Orthodox Christians.

For decades, Turkey has mostly ignored demands of the Patriarchate, mainly due to mistrust stemming from a rivalry with Greece. However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has pledged to address the problems of religious minorities and said he hopes the new constitution will correct democratic shortfalls.

Bartholomew sounded optimistic about the new constitution.

“Unfortunately there have been injustices toward minorities until now,” Bartholomew said. “These are slowly being corrected and changed. A new Turkey is being born.”

Bartholomew told reporters he favors a constitution that promotes equal rights and religious freedoms, including the reopening of a Greek Orthodox seminary that trained generations of patriarchs.

“We asked for equality,” Bartholomew said after the meeting. “In education, we asked that the seminary be reopened. We asked for freedom of religion and conscious, for freedom of worship.”

Bartholomew, who is based in Istanbul, is the spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians worldwide.

An 18-page report presented to the subcommittee also demands government funds for minority schools and places of worship, Bartholomew said.

“Until now there has been no state aid for any churches or minority schools,” Bartholomew said. “If we are talking of equality, this equality should be present in all fields.”

The subcommittee on Monday also heard the demands of Turkey’s tiny Assyrian Christian community.

A community leader, Kuryalos Ergun, said the Assyrians — one of the world’s oldest Christian communities — want religious minorities to be represented in a government agency that regulates mosques and imams in Turkey, and want minority clergy to be paid and employed by the state the same way imams are.

The Orthodox Christians want their Halki Theological School reopened in Turkey. Located, on Heybeliada Island, near Istanbul, it stopped admitting new students in 1971 under a Turkish law that put religious and military training under state control. The school closed its doors in 1985, when its last students graduated.

The patriarch has long complained that Halki’s closure has prevented raising new leaders for the church, and that Turkish laws that require a patriarch to be a Turkish citizen make it difficult for the nation’s dwindling Greek community of several thousand to produce candidates.

In 2010, the government granted Turkish citizenship to more than a dozen senior clerics from North and South America as well as Hong Kong, to help address the issue.

In August, the government agreed to return hundreds of properties that were confiscated from Christian and Jewish minorities over the past 75 years.


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