A chance for a breakthrough on Halki? Not likely

Thanos Davelis, Director of Public Affairs

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras traveled to Turkey today, holding meetings with President Erdogan in the wake of a two-year deterioration in relations and tensions in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. While discussions naturally focused on finding ways to defuse tensions between the two countries, the trip also includes a historic visit to Halki Theological Seminary — the first by a serving Greek prime minister in 90 years — where Tsipras will meet with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on Wednesday.

The upcoming visit to Halki was mentioned in more than a few international media outlets. For example, The New York Times reported that the visit is raising hopes “among Greeks and the small Greek minority in Turkey” that it will bolster their now 48-year-long campaign to reopen the seminary. However, as much as Greek Orthodox Christians and advocates of religious freedom desire a breakthrough on Halki, the likelihood of that happening soon is next to zero.

The doors to Halki were shut in 1971 by orders of the Turkish government, and remain shut to this day. Why is this significant? Halki was once the sole seminary of the Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate, and its list of graduates includes the current Ecumenical Patriarch. Without it, the Phanar is unable to effectively train and equip its future leaders. Reopening the seminary is essential for the Patriarchate and the local community. Congress, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), former Presidents, the EU, and other world leaders have repeatedly called for Turkey to reopen the school. In a famous speech at Turkey’s Parliament in 2009, then President Barack Obama urged Turkey to reopen Halki:

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.

Turkey’s response? Sidestep, try to turn it into an issue of reciprocity with Greece, and break its public and private promises to open the school. President Erdogan is a master at all of the above. The most notable example is his broken promise to President Obama in 2012. At a summit in Seoul, Erdogan promised that he would reopen the seminary. When Obama remarked that he was “pleased to hear of his decision to reopen the Halki Seminary”, Erdogan quickly walked back his pledge. Nearly seven years have passed since that day, and the doors of Halki remain shut.

During today’s press conference with Prime Minister Tsipras in Ankara, a reporter asked Erdogan about the Theological School of Halki. He replied by saying that Turkey has asked Greece to resolve the issue of the muftis in western Thrace first. Reading between the lines, it’s obvious he is using Halki as leverage in a form of high-stakes “hostage diplomacy”. Instead of holding an individual — as we saw with the case of Pastor Andrew Brunson — Turkey is holding an entire religious minority hostage to use as a bargaining chip in its relations with Greece.

While Tsipras’s visit to Halki may be historic, the past has taught us to be cautious. If Erdogan’s answer during the joint press conference in Ankara today indicates anything, it is that unfortunately we still have a long way to go before the doors of Halki open again. What is true is that Halki’s continued closure stands as a grim symbol of the plight of religious minorities in the region.