In a First, Greek Premier Visits Shuttered Seminary in Turkey

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HEYBELIADA, Turkey — Forty-eight years after Turkey forced the renowned seminary here to close, black-robed Orthodox priests rolled a red carpet down its marble steps for a guest unlike any in its history, Alexis Tsipras, who on Wednesday became the first sitting prime minister of Greece to visit.

Mr. Tsipras’s trip to the hilltop Halki theological seminary near Istanbul, long a fount of Christian scholarship in a mostly Muslim country, raised hopes within the tiny Greek community in Turkey and the wider Orthodox family that the Turkish government might heed calls to allow it to reopen.

The visit to the seminary, on Heybeliada Island in the Sea of Marmara, capped a two-day trip to Turkey by Mr. Tsipras, who met on Tuesday with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the capital, Ankara. Though the two leaders have developed a détente, relations between their nations have long been defined by antagonism, and they did not announce progress on any of the many disputes between them.

Instead, attention focused on the symbolism of a Greek premier going to the seminary, on the feast day for St. Photios the Great, who founded a monastery on the site in the ninth century, when it was at the heart of the Hellenic world.

Journalists and security officers almost outnumbered the 100 parishioners and priests attending Mass on Wednesday in the monastery chapel. The service was led by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who oversees the world’s 15 Eastern Orthodox churches from his seat in Istanbul, a city his faith still calls Constantinople.

For more than a century, the seminary trained generations of Orthodox clerics and leaders, including the current patriarch. In a high-ceilinged meeting hall inside the seminary, beneath a heavy chandelier and portraits of past bishops and professors, Patriarch Bartholomew pleaded for its reopening.

“This is a nest of science and culture,” he said. “It is inexplicable that a school that was founded and opened in 1844 during the Ottoman period, was closed down during the Republican period, and has been kept closed for half a century.”

“The Orthodox Church and in general, the contemporary world are in need of theologians and religious leaders without blinkers, fundamentalism or intolerance — ministers of dialogue and love,” he told the visitors.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan made no commitment on the seminary, but reminisced fondly about visiting it, and its famed library, when he was a student at an Islamic religious school in Istanbul.

He shrugged off a question about allowing Mr. Tsipras’s visit.

“We do not have any concerns,” he said. “When the demand came from them, we said ‘Enjoy the visit.’”

Mr. Tsipras caught the tail end of Mass and then toured the library and planted a tree together with the patriarch and Ibrahim Kalin, Mr. Erdogan’s spokesman and national security adviser. The Greek leader said he hoped to visit again, to attend the reopening of the seminary with Mr. Erdogan.

“The reopening of the school will not be a point or a message of discord or dispute, or differentiation or division, but it will be a message of friendship, mutual understanding and brotherhood between our two peoples,” he said.

In comments to journalists, Mr. Kalin said, “we have a common understanding of this and we hope we will be able to take some steps to make it happen.”

Mr. Erdogan has insisted, however, that the issue be resolved with a reciprocal gesture by Greece to meet the concerns of the Muslim minority in Greece. In particular, he wants Greece to allow Muslims in western Thrace to elect their own religious leaders, known as muftis.

On Tuesday he also called for the extradition of eight Turkish military officers who escaped to Greece at the time of the failed coup in 2016 and requested asylum. Mr. Tsipras said he could not interfere with the courts deciding their fates, but added that Greece did not want to harbor coup plotters.

Human rights organizations and the European Court of Human Rights have called on both countries to show greater respect for minorities; to that end, work is nearing completion on what would be the first mosque in Athens in almost two centuries.

Much of the modern hostility between the two neighbors dates back a century, to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and a war between the nations that led to painful pogroms and population exchanges.

Mr. Tsipras spoke on Tuesday of plans to restart negotiations for a peaceful settlement to Cyprus, which was violently divided into ethnic Turkish and Greek sectors in the 1970s.

In some ways, conditions have improved for Turkey’s small religious minorities — in particular Greek and Armenian Christians, and Jews — over the 17 years of Mr. Erdogan’s rule.

Under previous governments, an Orthodox leader could not get an audience with the president or prime minister, but these days Patriarch Bartholomew can easily reach Mr. Erdogan or his officials, and he attended the state dinner in Ankara Tuesday night.

But supporters of the seminary said that Mr. Erdogan should not demand Greek action in return for reopening it.

“It should never have been closed,” said Baskin Oran, a Turkish academic and columnist. “It is never too late to correct a clear situational mistake like this.”

“We are citizens,” said Elpidophiros Lamdrinides, the Orthodox abbott who heads the small monastery attached to the seminary. “We do not think it is a good idea to keep our rights hostage to reciprocity.”

“The Halki seminary is not like any other academic institution of its kind,” he said. “It was a higher academy preparing bishops, archbishops, metropolitans and patriarchs” for senior leadership in all of the Orthodox churches.

It had up to 120 students, including members of Catholic, Protestant and Ethiopian churches, he added.

The seminary also has one of the most important libraries in the Orthodox world, including many 12th-century manuscripts and valuable prints, which it has digitized with support from the Greek lottery fund, Abbott Lamdrinides said. Now it is seeking a sponsor to help restore the books.

In 1971, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled that all private higher education institutions had to come under state control and be tied either to a Turkish state university or to an Islamic religious faculty.

The restriction has since eased, and private universities with religious faculties can function in Turkey as long as they are owned by foundations, according to Elcin Macar, a professor of political science and international relations at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul.

Laki Vingas, a Turkish-Greek businessman and supporter of a Greek foundation in Istanbul, said there were signs in Turkey of growing compassion for Greeks who had suffered from a sense of abandonment with the closing of their leading academic institution.

Turks had gained nothing from the closing, which had only encouraged narrow-minded nationalism, he said.

Among those present for Mr. Tsipras’s visit was Ahmet Ertem, a Muslim engineer from Istanbul.

“I come here every year for the ceremony,” he said. “I have many childhood friends who were Greek, Jewish, Armenian.”

If the school reopened, “I would be happy,” he said. “I would even teach here, unpaid.”

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