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Laïcité en débat

Samim Akgönul

Cinquième partie. Enseignement religieux et laïcité cadres juridiques et contenus

The Question of Training Clerics in Secular Turkey: The Theological School of Halki

Elçin Macar

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1Being unable to train clerics is a problem not only for the Greeks in Turkey but also for the Armenians, Syrians, and all the non-Muslims in the country. For instance, the Armenian theology school, the “Holy Cross Seminary”, started its activities in 1953 but was closed in 1968. While the Syrians have never had an official school. Catholics, on the other hand, have been working around this problem for a long time by sending their candidates for the priesthood to congregations or theology schools abroad. Greeks, who had a theological school in Halki from 1844 until it was shut down to 1971, have experienced a shortage of clerics ever since its closure. So all the Christian communities have become dependent on abroad, on other churches, because they haven’t been able to train their clerics in Turkey. The subject of this essay is the Theological School of Halki.

I. History of the School

2During 19th century the influence of nationalism led to the emergence of many new States. Each of the newly established States with a predominantly Orthodox population started its own church; and, as a result, the centuries’ old power that the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate had inherited was shaken.

3Therefore, the Patriarchate started planning a theological school where it could train its own clerics with a transnational approach, preserving religious unity among the Orthodox communities in individual nation-states, while keeping the patronage for itself and providing homogeneity in terms of theology. Patriarch Germanos IV took the first steps and he founded the Theological School of Halki (TSH) on Halki’s Hope Crest, over the Hagia Triada Monastery of Byzantium, in 1844.

4The school was temporarily confiscated for military reasons during World War I and it was also exposed to the risk of confiscation after the Turkish Republic had been proclaimed in 1923. Eventually, after trials that lasted until the 1940s, the school was registered to the Patriarchate.

  • 1 Emre Özyilmaz, Heybeliada Ruhban Okulu, Ankara, Tamga Yay., 2000, p. 86.

5In 1947 the Patriarchate applied to the Ministry of Education, requesting permission for changes to the curriculum and the right to assign foreign teachers and have foreign students, in order to implement its plans to convert the school into a college. It is worth quoting from the response to this request by an inter-ministry commission, since half a century later the Turkish authorities would again be citing it as a reference1:

“Because that the demand is for a school that has merely 16 native students, it is obvious that it is not result of a real need... In Law 4936, it is said that universities and faculties independent of universities can only be opened by the State and by law... So, it could be possible to meet a real, potential, future need by having an additional chair of Orthodoxy in the faculty of theology.”

  • 2 Özyilmaz, ibid, p. 77-78.

6A new era for minorities started in 1950, following the election of the Democrat Party under Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. In the second year of the Democrat Party government, an additional new class was added to the three-classes at the school by order of the Ministry of Education, and the school was categorized as a “Specialized School of Theology”.2 As a result, a section called “college” covered an education of one year. Most of the students came from regions of the Patriarchate’s domain of jurisdiction. After the change in 1951, students from different churches such as the Ethiopian Church or the Anglican Church had the option of receiving education from the school, provided that permission was granted by the government.

7The headmaster of the school, who was chosen from among the metropolitans, was also responsible for the Hagia Triada Monastery, in which the school was established. The practice of assigning a founder, as was the case for minority schools and private schools, used to be valid for Halki too. So the metropolitan, as the headmaster, also used to be assigned as the founder. But in 1960, after the death of the then incumbent, no replacement was assigned.

8The TSH had its share in the Greece-Turkey tensions of 1964-65, which had first emerged in 1963. The practice of providing applicant students with visas without any interrogation that had been applied through Turkish embassies was abolished in 1963. It was in this period that, for the first time, official correspondence mentioned using the TSH as an instrument against Greece.

  • 3 Eastern Churches Review, vol. 1, 1966-1967, p. 319.

9Between 1923-37, the school had 65 students and 15 teachers, of whom 3 were Turkish. In 1949, there were 16 students, all of them Turkish nationals; in 1962, 81 students of whom 16 were Turkish nations; in 1953, 76 students, of whom 12 were Turkish nationals. The number of graduates in the summer of 1968 was just 4.3 There were 930 graduates during 127 years the school was active: 343 of them became bishops; and 12 of the latter became Patriarchs.

II. Closure of the school

  • 4 Ozyilmaz, ibid., p. 101.

10After the Supreme Court annulled some articles of the Law for Institutes of Private Education – dated 1965 and numbered 625 – the college section of the school was closed on June 9, 1971 by a “confidential” order of August 12, 1971.4 Some time before that, on July 1, 1971, Athenagoras the Patriarch wrote to Prime Minister Nihat Erim asking for his attention and protection. He noted that the school had been started long before Law No. 625 had been promulgated, so that it had been nothing more than a professional school and therefore could not be considered a college.

  • 5 Elçin Macar, Cumhuriyet Döneminde İstanbul Rum Patrikhanesi, İstanbul, İletişim Yay., 2003, p. 294.

11The trusteeship assigned to the school hired Professor Dr. ¨¨Omer İlhan Akipek of the Law Faculty of Ankara University as attorney; and he started a lawsuit demanding the cancellation of the administrative practice in November 17, 1971, on the following legal grounds5:

  1. The school is one of those mentioned in the Treaty of Lausanne, Article 40.

  2. Except for the statement written on the diploma given to graduates of the theology department saying “They are considered equivalent to the graduates of professional schools of at least one year of high school education”, there is no difference between a high school diploma from the State and a diploma from a Theology Department.

  3. Graduates of the school serve in the military as privates.

  4. Those intending to continue with an university education are subject to acceptance examinations for universities.

  5. The graduates are accepted merely for the profession of priesthood.

  6. The school had been active since 1844 and it was not established under to the Law for Institutes of Private Education, numbered 625. Hence, no private school could have been established during the period in which the written regulations of the school were approved.

  7. There is clear evidence that the legislation did not consider the school as a college, so that, although all the private institutes of higher education which were closed were connected to present universities or academies in order to provide students with the opportunity to continue with their education, there has been no such practice for the TSH.

  • 6 Macar, ibid., p. 294-295.

12The trusteeship of the school also commissioned a study from Prof. Dr. Hicri Fisek, a member of the Law Faculty of Ankara University. In his study dated February 10, 1972, Prof. Fisek mentions the following in brief, with statements very similar to those used by Mr. Akipek:6

  1. When it was closed, the school was active as a minority school as mentioned in Article 25, which had not been annulled, of Law No. 625. That article refers to Articles 40 and 41 of the Treaty of Lausanne. Because the annulment of some terms of Law No. 625 would not result in the closure of Turkish citizens’ intermediate grade schools, the practice would be contrary to the principle of equality enshrined in the Treaty of Lausanne.

  2. Since the Treaty of Lausanne requires freedom for minorities to perform their religious rituals, it also requires the freedom to train clerics and since Article 40 regulates the “opening of all sorts of schools and educational institutions, etc.”, minorities opening schools to train clerics would damage the principle of secularism less than the secular government opening schools of religion.

  3. As with other high school diplomas, the headmaster of the school and the National Education Director sign the schools diplomas. On the other hand, it is the headmaster and the Minister of National Education who sign the diplomas of private colleges.

  4. The regulations of the school – which are approved by the Ministry of National Education – clearly State the fact that the diploma does not provide the same rights as diplomas from a university or college.

  • 7 Zekai Baloğlu, Grek Devleti, Patrikhane ve Rahipler Okulu, İstanbul, Harp Akademileri Komutanlığı Y (...)

13The appeal to the Council of State was refused on the grounds that the Patriarchate did not have a judicial personality, and so it did not qualify either for a judicial appeal or to open a school.7

III. After the closure

14After that date, the education continued only within the general high school section. However, due to the decline in the community’s population, the number of students gradually decreased as well. Dimitrios the Patriarch wrote to the Minister of National Education on August 4, 1984 and mentioned that, because the candidates for the position of founder had been rejected, social security transactions and official correspondence could not be continued and they could not hire and defend themselves in trials related to these issues, the trials concluded in their absence, they had been sentenced to pay compensation and, in the end, the school’s property had been subject to sequestration. He added that a headmaster had not been assigned for several years, so that both education and discipline in the school had been paralyzed, and that because teachers had not been assigned, no practical education had taken place either. He stated that the results of the events described above could be seen in the fact that there were currently only four students in the school. In conclusion, he requested the closure of the school; but that request was rejected in accordance with the principle of “reciprocity”.

  • 8 Macar, ibid., p. 296-297.

15The issue later became one of the most urgent issues for the Patriarchate during the term of Patriarch Bartholomeos. On April 4, 1996, he wrote a letter to Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz and talked about the Patriarchate's need for clerics, stating that candidates for the priesthood had been sent abroad for an education because the school was closed but that this had not yielded the anticipated result; on the contrary, new problems had arisen. And he requested the reopening of the school.8

16Media reports suggested that work was continuing on finding a new solution and the issue appeared on the National Security Councils agenda after pressure from both the EU and the US and that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had advised that a reopening “would be beneficiary in terms of foreign affairs”. It was also said that the US wanted “a Theological School with adequate liberty in its daily operations, though it would be subject to the same rules as all of the schools which are subject to general higher education regulations in Turkey”.

17After its meeting on September 14, 1999, the Council of Higher Education decided that a “Department of World Religions Culture” within the Theology Faculty of Istanbul University be established, upon a request from the Prime Ministry, dated September 3, 1999. Prof. Dr. Zekeriya Beyaz, who was assigned to execute operations for that department, wrote to the spiritual leaders of non-Muslim communities on December 14, 1999 and asked for their suggestions and moral support. But neither the communities nor the spiritual institutions were interested in that solution and the issue remained unsolved.

18After Justice and Development Party came to power in 2002, cabinet members frequently mentioned that reopening the school would not create a potential inconvenience and stated that steps ahead would be taken “soon”. But to date there has still been no progress.

IV. Fears...

  • 9 Fener Rum Patrikhanesi’nin Dünü-Bugünü-Yarını, Istanbul, Harp Akademileri Yayını, 1995, p. 41-42.

19Those who do not want the school to be opened can be divided into a few groups. According to the most influential of those who have shaped or supported Turkeys decades-old policy towards the Greek Patriarchate, the TSH is the “Military College” for the Patriarchate or even the Megali İdea. So Turkey could not be expected to train clerics who would feed Greece’s expansionist ideology. Therefore, the policy not allowing the school to be reopened is consistent with the policy of “destruction” that has been implemented against the Patriarchate.9

20Since the school was closed, the Patriarchate has become incapable of meeting its need for clerics and has become dependent on the Church of Greece. However, that result is just the contrary to what those who produced those policies really wanted.

21As the population of its community declines, the Patriarchate has become increasingly short of young people who want to become clerics. It sends those who apply abroad, but some of them do not come back. A written communication of the Istanbul Governorship of 1923, which requires all candidates for Patriarch to be of Turkish nationality, means that the number of possible candidates is gradually decreasing. So, perhaps the hope is that the Patriarchate will disappear “by itself” in 30-40 years because this policy of “consistency” would mean that it would not be able to find any candidates. In addition, the same parties often talk about the concept of reciprocity with Greece in order to solve problems of Western Thrace. But foreign criticisms trigger the response that the Patriarchate is a “Turkish institution” and it is emphasized that the issue is a Turkish internal issue.

22Apparently, these parties either do not know or refuse to learn that the Megali Idea had already taken its place in the garbage bin of history after Greece’s defeat in 1922 and that it is no longer a factor in Greek foreign policy. And, under the prevailing circumstances, they are not uncomfortable with the fact that candidates for clerics of that “Turkish institution” are being educated abroad and meet “harmful” ideologies there. And they want this “Turkish institution” to be used against Greece in the context of reciprocity as if it was a “foreign” institution. But there is no principle of “reciprocity” in the Treaty of Lausanne in such a context. That interpretation, which is based on Article 45 of the treaty, in fact means that the provisions on minority rights mentioned before that article are valid and in force for Greece as well. Lausanne is an international treaty, not a bilateral agreement between Turkey and Greece. So any violation of privileges or rights practiced by either Greece or Turkey cannot justify the other doing the same. Anyway, the interpretation of the principle of reciprocity in such a way violates another principle in international law that prohibits “practicing it in a way that violates human rights”.

23It is not a secret that some decision-makers worry that allowing Christians to open their theology school – particularly at a time when imam hatip schools are such a hot topic in Turkey – might trigger Islamist opposition. But there is a very basic difference which has been overlooked; namely that there is a clerical class in Christianity and that Christians cannot worship without them. On the other hand, imam hatip schools are established for another reason because there is no such class in Islam. For instance, Erbakan, a former prime minister, described the imam hatip schools as the Islamists’ “backyards”.

24Another issue of concern is that if the school was opened with its original status without any legal change, the Patriarchate might have cause for action for damages/compensation because its closure had been unfair.

V. Suggestions for a solution

25Theoretically, religious educational activities and the training of clerics are generally performed in schools or faculties administered by officials of the religion itself or by its sects. A French law dated December 9, 1905 has mainly solved that problem and the regulatory areas for the State and the church have been separated in France, where there are many similarities with Turkey in terms of the implementation of the principle of secularity. The dominant principles of that law are: The republic accepts freedom of conscience and secures liberty of worship. The republic does not recognize any religious group and does not provide any financial aid or pay any salaries to any of them. The organization of religious schools in France is totally left to religious groups or sects (an exception is made for the province of Alsace-Lorraine).

26Including theology faculties in the body of a secular State is peculiar to Turkey, a nation that has adopted the principle of secularism and has a Moslem majority population. However, Orthodox theological education is something more than a basic daily schedule of lessons, having a much complex practice of worship, such as attending rituals and obeying fasting terms. On the other hand, the current theology faculties are institutions that actually teach and conduct research about Islam. The inclusion of an Orthodox theology school within such an institution might cause some inconvenience and the infrastructure of the current theology faculties, such as their libraries, is not sufficient for such department of Orthodox theology as well.

27The solution is for the school to be a “Patriarchate seminary” administered by the Patriarchate, but supervised/controlled by Ministry of National Education. Under such conditions, its diplomas might not be officially recognized apart from some exceptions (such as being candidate for Patriarch, being a scholar or theology teacher in a related field).

28Because the population of the Greek minority has become so small, the number of applicants from Turkey would be very small too. But the ecumenical status of the Patriarchate would make it very likely that the school would be in demand from Orthodox Christians outside Turkey. That is why receiving students from abroad is a necessity. As a matter of fact, the Patriarchate would like to receive students from the various regions under its jurisdiction. Furthermore, potential candidates might include students belonging to other churches and willing to learn Orthodox theology, though they would not be from the area under the Patriarchates jurisdiction. This was the situation until it was prohibited in 1964.

29The government has many times declared its willingness to open the school. The issue has moved beyond the question of whether or not the school should be reopened to deciding how it should be reopened. For years - apparently even the government before this one had the same intention - the aim has been to have the TSH reopened as part of the theology faculty of a State university. But, ever since it was first mentioned, the Patriarchate has been cool towards this idea and insisted that the status of the school should be consistent with it being administered, its curriculum set and its teachers assigned by the Patriarchate itself.

30The present government has moved away from that formula, which would obviously cause major problems for the parties and was proposed by the previous government, and tends towards another formula whereby the school would have a special status belonging to the Ministry of National Education instead of a status within the System of the Council of Higher Education.

31A priest s elevation to a bishopric is only possible after a higher education of at least four years and graduation from a theology faculty. The issue of meeting the need for clerics should be considered within the framework of individual liberties/rights. Therefore, after so many packages of legislative amendments for compliance with EU norms, the legal basis for the issue should be sought not in the “positive rights” provided for minorities but in the “negative rights” valid for every individual in the nation.


32Article 40 of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, which is directly relevant to the issue States:

33“Turkish nationals belonging to non-Moslem minorities shall enjoy the same treatment and security in law and in fact as other Turkish nationals. In particular, they shall have an equal right to establish, manage and control at their own expense, any charitable, religious and social institutions, any schools and other establishments for instruction and education, with the right to use their own language and to exercise their own religion freely therein.”

34The TSH is both “a religious institution” and falls within the “any schools” category of the above. A very important principle of international law is that “no ratifying party can legitimize not practicing the treaty by bringing forward the terms of its own domestic law”. Therefore, both closing and not opening TSH – an institution of dogmatic education – because that it did not fit with principle of secularism of the Turkish higher education System contravenes international law.

35Another point to bear in mind is that a secular State cannot, or should not train, clerics. Therefore, every Christian community should train its own clerics, collecting money from the community itself and, of course, setting its own curriculum under the supervision and control of the State. That is the secular practice throughout the world. Should they so wish, the communities could do this in cooperation within a single institution. The intention to teach “official Christianity” in theology faculties – just like teaching “official Islam” in obligatory theology lessons in Turkish schools – is a practice which contradicts the basis of the secular regime.

36Christians’ need for clerics in Turkey has already become an urgent issue. Turkey does not need any new legislation because the issue is already covered in Article 40 of the Treaty of Lausanne. But if something is not done, Christians in Turkey might appeal to the European Court of Human Rights and would probably win their case against Turkey.


1 Emre Özyilmaz, Heybeliada Ruhban Okulu, Ankara, Tamga Yay., 2000, p. 86.

2 Özyilmaz, ibid, p. 77-78.

3 Eastern Churches Review, vol. 1, 1966-1967, p. 319.

4 Ozyilmaz, ibid., p. 101.

5 Elçin Macar, Cumhuriyet Döneminde İstanbul Rum Patrikhanesi, İstanbul, İletişim Yay., 2003, p. 294.

6 Macar, ibid., p. 294-295.

7 Zekai Baloğlu, Grek Devleti, Patrikhane ve Rahipler Okulu, İstanbul, Harp Akademileri Komutanlığı Yayını, ikinci baskı, 2000, p. 22.

8 Macar, ibid., p. 296-297.

9 Fener Rum Patrikhanesi’nin Dünü-Bugünü-Yarını, Istanbul, Harp Akademileri Yayını, 1995, p. 41-42.


Maître de Conférences des relations internationales à l’Université Technique de Yıldız
Spécialiste des minorités, notamment non-musulmanes de Turquie, Elçin Macar a étudié les relations internationales de l’Université d’Istanbul. Actuellement il enseigne à l’Université Technique de Yıldız (Istanbul) les Sciences politiques et les relations internationales. Ses travaux portent surtout sur les chrétiens de Turquie dont Fener Patrikhanesi (Patriarcat du Phanar), Ankara: Ayraç, 1996 en collaboration avec Yorgo Benlisoy, Istanbul’un iki Yok Olmuş Cemaati: Doğu Ritli Katolik Rumlar ve Bulgarlar (Deux communautés disparues d’Istanbul: Les Grecs et les Bulgares catholiques de rite oriental), Istanbul: Iletișim, 2002 et Cumhuriyet Döneminde Istanbul Rum Patrikhanesi (Le Patriarcat grec d’Istanbul à l’époque républicaine), Istanbul: Iletişim, 2002.

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