ATHENS (Combined Sources)–Greece hit back Sunday at Turkey’s criticism of the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians for saying that minority Greeks in Turkey are treated like second-class citizens and feel “crucified sometimes.”
In an interview with the American CBS network that aired Sunday, Greek Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew criticized the Turkish government for not opening the Halki Seminary despite consecutive meetings on the matter. In an immediate reaction, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he wanted to see the patriarch’s statements as an undesired slip of the tongue.
Greece’s foreign ministry responded that among Turkey’s obligations for joining the European Union is “that respect for the freedom of religion and the rights of minorities takes first place.”
Bartholomew “is known for his wisdom and moderation, and for his unwavering support for Turkey’s membership of the EU,” foreign ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras said in a statement.
“It is the duty of all, and mainly those who carry responsibility for the situation of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Greek minority, to pay attention,” the spokesman added.
In excerpts of the interview released ahead of its full broadcast, Bartholomew said: “We are treated … like second-class citizens. We do not feel like we can enjoy our full rights as Turkish citizens.”
But he ruled out the option of leaving Turkey, saying, “We prefer to stay here, even crucified sometimes.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet DavutoGlu rejected accusations of religious discrimination by his government.
“We regard the use of the crucifixion simile as extremely unfortunate. … I would like to see this as an undesired slip of the tongue,” DavutoGlu told reporters Saturday.
“We cannot accept comparisons that we do not deserve,” the minister said.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul dates from the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, which collapsed in 1453 when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks, and Bartholomew represents the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.
Ankara does not interfere with the patriarchate’s religious functions, though it withholds recognition of his ecumenical title, treating him only as the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Greeks still living in the country.
President Abdullah Ggl backed Davutoglu’s statement Monday and said he preferred not to make additional comments on the issue.
Kursat Tuzmen, the head of the international-relations unit of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) meanwhile lashed out at the patriarch in an interview with the Turkish NTV channel.
Calling the religious leader’s comments unfortunate, Tuzmen said, “If there is someone who is being crucified, it is the politicians, security officials and others,” he said. “If he is a religious and spiritual leader, he should be much more cautious when making a statement.”
Recalling the words of Patriarch Bartholomew about his love toward his country, Tuzmen added, “Someone who really loves his country has to be more responsible.”
When asked if the government planed to re-open the Halki Seminary, which was closed in 1971 following a Constitutional Court ruling, Tuzmen said, “This process requires a look at the conditions of the Turkish minority in Greece and Bulgaria.”
“We don’t necessarily consider it in terms of rules of reciprocity. But it is our right to ponder the rights of our kin in these countries,” he said. “Can they fully enjoy their rights, or under what conditions can they benefit from freedom of worship?”
“It’s a very unfortunate statement. He will surely make a statement and will express what he meant. Please, let’s all wait for it,” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, told reporters Sunday.
Arinc said the government had never intended to discriminate against religious minorities and had, only a few months ago, initiated a broad meeting in Istanbul with the representatives of Turkey’s official minority groups.