The Islamic Case for Religious Liberty

ANKARA – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church recently said on American TV that he feels “crucified” in Turkey, upsetting many Turks.   Sadly, his Holiness is right.   Yet his complaint is not with Islam but with the secular Turkish Republic.

The Turkish state has kept the Halki Seminary, the only institution able to train Orthodox priests, closed since 1971. Even the Patriarch’s title “ecumenical” is lashed out at by some Turkish authorities and their nationalist supporters. Every year, international reports on religious freedom point to such pressures on the Patriarchate with concern, and they are right to do so.   But why does Turkey do all this? What is the source of the problem?

Things were better long ago. The first Turkish ruler to reign over the Ecumenical Patriarchate was Mehmed II, the Ottoman Sultan who conquered Constantinople in 1453. In line with the Islamic tradition of accepting the “People of the Book,” the young sultan granted amnesty to the patriarchate. He also gave the institution many privileges and authorities, no less than that which existed under the Byzantine emperors. Armenians and Jews later enjoyed the same autonomies.

In the 19th century, the non-Muslim peoples of the empire also achieved the rights of equal citizenship with Muslims. That’s why the late Ottoman bureaucracy and the Ottoman Parliament included a great number of Greeks, Armenians and Jews — something you never see in republican Turkey. The Halki Seminary, opened in 1844, is a relic from that bygone age of pluralism.