The headline on President Obama’s speech to the Turkish parliament is his statement that the U.S. is not at war with Islam, but for connoisseurs of religious politics, the real interest lies in this remark:
Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil
society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like
reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside
Turkey and beyond. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the
only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all
people. Robust minority rights let societies benefit from the full
measure of contributions from all citizens.
Since its opening on the site of an ancient monastery on an island in the Sea of Marmara in 1844, the Halki Seminary was the main school of theology for the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople. Then, in 1971, the Turks closed the place, on the grounds that they didn’t want religious institutions of higher learning to exist independent of the Turkish state. Oh, and the idea that this should become a center for education of world Orthodoxy didn’t sit well with them either.
For years, the position of the American government has been that Halki Seminary should be reopened. Both houses of Congress passed resolutions to that effect in 1998, and the following year President Clinton actually visited the island and urged the same. It’s now on the table in Turkey’s negotiations to become part of the EU. So in one sense, Obama wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. But just yesterday, he made waves in Europe by urging Turkey’s admission to the EU–a position he reiterated in Ankara. (“Let me be clear: the United States strongly supports Turkey’s bid to become a member of the European Union.”) The Turks have real reason now to make a move.
Meanwhile, by speaking up strongly for Halki to the Turkish parliamentarians, Obama earned some cred with the Greeks in America–whose religious suzerain is the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew. They had been annoyed that Obama met with him at his hotel rather than making a visit to the Phanar, where Bartholomew hangs his mitre. Win-win for the president as things stand, big win-win if Halki is permitted to reopen.