Guest blogger, Cary J. Limberakis, D.M.D., is the husband of Philoptochos National Board member Alexis D. Limberakis who recently returned from the Philoptochos pilgrimage to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. They have witnessed first hand the disposition of the Theological School of Halki during their visits there. Dr. Limberakis is an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle and Regional Commander of the Philadelphia region.
Emblematic of the longstanding and pernicious religious freedom deficit in Turkey, the Halki School of Theology was forcibly shut down over 42 years ago by the Turkish authorities and has been shuttered ever since. Despite innumerable raised-then-dashed hopes over the ensuing decades, it appears we are no closer to the actual reopening of the only local Orthodox Seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate than we were when it first closed, although that could change.
The Seminary, located on one of the beautiful Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara off the coast of Constantinople and specifically on the grounds of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity founded by Saint Photios the Great in the ninth century, has graduated numerous Orthodox luminaries since 1844 when it formally opened including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, +Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, +Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America and Saint Chrysostomos of Smyrna. However, today, the classrooms remain empty and the library consisting of an extraordinary collection of theological manuscripts and books remains little used.
On his very first trip abroad, the newly inaugurated President Barack Obama on April 6, 2009 stated "For democracies cannot be static -- they must move forward. Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond (emphasis added)." Prior to that, Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at the very highest levels of American diplomacy sought to have the Seminary reopened. Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry has brought the issue up on his several visits to Turkey.
The Archons of America under the leadership of Archbishop Demetrios have formulated a multifaceted domestic and international strategy to reopen Halki, as well as address the other specific components that comprise the religious freedom deficit* that has raised the international consciousness of the religious freedom crisis in Turkey, but thus far has not been successful in opening the hallowed doors of Halki. Archon presentations before the White House, Congress, the State Department, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, each of the 50 State Legislatures in the United States, the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights, at Europe's largest human rights meetings at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and with Turkish government leaders including Prime Minister Erdogan have not even cracked the doors open.
Yet, as Orthodox Christians, we remain optimistic that the religious freedom chasm that exists in Turkey will be addressed and we are beginning to see some signs of that: the confiscated Patriarchal Orphanage has been returned to the Ecumenical Patriarchate by the government complying to a unanimous decision handed down by the European Court of Human Rights. Other properties are beginning to be returned back to the Church and other religious minorities via a laborious and time consuming administrative process. However, as we have been accustomed to observe, whenever the Turkish government takes a small positive step, often times it is offset by a negative step, and in this case by the ongoing attempts of some Turkish parliamentarians to reopen Agia Sophia as a practicing mosque.
The Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate will never, never give up its struggle to seek complete and unfettered religious freedom for the Holy and Great Mother Church of Constantinople, until the day the bells freedom can be heard around the world emanating from the Saint George Patriarchal Cathedral located at the Phanar.
Cary J. Limberakis, DMDArchon AktouariosRegional Commander - Philadelphia
To learn more on the Ecumenical Patriarchate, visit the following websites:
*The Five Components of the Religious Freedom Crisis in Turkey
1. Lack of legal personality: in the eyes of the Turkish government, the Ecumenical Patriarchate does not exist as a bonafide legal entity
2. Government interference in the election of the Ecumenical Patriarchate
3. Forcible closure of Halki Seminary in 1971, the only local Orthodox School of Theology of the Ecumenical Patriarchate
4. Loss of property rights, although this issue is just beginning to be addressed
5. Nonrecognition of the title "Ecumenical," a canonical, ecclesiastical and historical title used by the entire world since the sixth century, except by the modern Republic of Turkey