By Henry Shapiro
Although Turkey’s population is more than 99% Muslim, its rich history ensures the country a special place in the hearts of Christians worldwide, especially Orthodox Christians.
Home to several of the world’s oldest Christian churches — such as the birthplace of St. Paul and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the most revered Orthodox Christian — Orthodox Christian pilgrims and tourists flock to Turkey from around the world.
However, today, only 2,500 Greek Orthodox Turkish citizens remain.
Turkish law requires that Orthodox Christian clergy and teachers must be Turkish citizens, a regulation which causes countless problems for the Orthodox Church in Turkey and which could ultimately threaten its institutional survival.
Though the Ecumenical Patriarchate oversees 60 churches in and around Istanbul, it only has 28 priests qualified to perform the liturgy. It also suffers from a lack of teachers and monks.
One of Istanbul’s Orthodox monasteries, St. George Monastery on Buyuk Ada, goes to great lengths to bring in monks. Since 1997, three Greek monks from Mt. Athos have travelled back and forth between Istanbul to Thessaloniki, residing in Turkey for three-month periods on tourist visas.
When asked why he and his brothers came to Turkey, Father Kallinikos said they came “by the will of God because we love this land”.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate would prefer a more stable solution to their manpower problems — one that would allow more people like Father Kallinikos to follow their calling.
The Ecumenical Patriarch’s Press and Human Relations bureau chief, Father Dositheos Anagnostopulos, told SETimes that the Patriarchate’s greatest hope is for the incumbent Turkish government to reopen the Orthodox Theological School on Halki, which the government shut down in 1971.
Currently, there is no school for training Orthodox Christian clergy in Turkey. Father Anagnostopulos considers reopening the school at Halki “imperative” for improving religious freedom in the country.
He also notes that in 1960 there were about 200,000 Greek Orthodox Christians in Istanbul, almost 100 times the current number.
According to Father Anagnostopulos, “pressure applied by previous Turkish governments” forced these people out. “This pressure has disappeared in recent years, but those who left are not able to return,” he added.
The Patriarchate hopes that those who wish to return are allowed to come back and, with the proper paperwork, become priests or teachers. He would also like for the Turkish government to grant work permits to foreign Orthodox Christians who wish to come work as priests or teachers.
Father Anagnostopulos envisions Turkey’s future as the region’s largest “multicultural” nation. “Diverse immigrants are coming to Turkey from all over the world to find work, and many of them are Christians,” he says.
When that time comes, he is hopeful that Christians will be able to worship freely.