Church caught in Islamic threat

January 21, 2000

A thaw in relations between Greece and Turkey could result in the reopening of a theological college for orthodox priests in Istanbul closed nearly 30 years ago.

The Theological School of Halki, located on the island of Heybeli and owned by the Patriarchate of Istanbul, dates back to 1844. It was home to 120 students until its closure and was the main centre of learning and training for priests for the church.

Patriarch spokesman Archdeacon Terasios said: "It is the foremost theological institution where the Ecumenical Patriarchate can train its clergy, where the next generation of priests, bishops and patriarchs can come from.

"It is very important: it breeds the spirit, vision, identity and aims of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Without this school the Patriarchate is forced to train its clergy in other institutions," he added.

In 1971, the college was inadvertently caught in a government clampdown on Islamic influences that closed private universities.

The deteriorating relations between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus are also believed to be a factor in the refusal of later governments to reopen the college.

The patriarch in Istanbul is spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, including the Greek Orthodox church.

Greece is under pressure from the Greek Orthodox church to reopen the school. When Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit visited the United States last year, President Clinton called for the school to be reopened, repeating the demand when he visited Turkey last November.

Observers of the Turkish government believe it is trying to find a formula that will allow the school to reopen.

One solution is for it to become a state university or part of Istanbul University.

A complicating factor is that the government is anxious not to set a precedent that Islamic sects can use to open private universities.

Fetuallah Gulen, head of one of the most powerful Islamic sects in Turkey, has been one of the strongest supporters of the re-opening of the school.

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