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Obama Meets with Eastern Orthodox Leader

(RNS) President Obama met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians, on Tuesday (April 7) in Turkey, where they discussed religious freedom and the opening of an historic seminary closed by Turkish authorities.
Bartholomew “made a convincing and passionate argument” for re-opening the Theological School of Halki, according to a statement released by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the American archdiocese, also attended the meeting.
Bartholomew is based in Istanbul, although many Orthodox still refer to it as Constantinople, its name until 1930.
Turkey closed the Halki seminary, which was the patriarchy’s main theological training ground, in 1971, when the country nationalized all secondary schools. Halki’s leaders refused to become part of the state system.
Obama urged Turkish lawmakers to reopen Halki in a speech Monday in Ankara, saying it will “send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond.”
Religious leaders, including Bartholomew, have often complained about restrictions on religious practices in Turkey, a secular state with a majority-Muslim population.
Bartholomew discussed religious freedom with Obama on Tuesday, stated his support for Turkey to join the European Union and praised efforts to save the environment, according to the statement. He also congratulated the president on correctly picking the University of North Carolina’s basketball team as champions of the NCAA tournament.
By Daniel Burke
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • nnmns

    It’s tempting to say that school should be opened but if the reason the state wants to run the schools is to keep out the fundamentalists, like the Wahhabis, this might be the first step down a slippery slope they should not take.
    Better, maybe, if we just stay out of it.

  • Nate W

    The Turkish government has an unjustifiable amount of control over the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and it tries its darnedest to strip the Patriarchs of their ecumenical, global influence. I’m glad Obama is expressing concern for the situation, although I doubt it will accomplish anything (Clinton spoke up to, but to no avail). Perhaps if the Turkish government would leave the Patriarchate alone, then Bartholomew would be more inclined to recognize greater sovereignty for the American Orthodox churches, which nowadays are about the only thing the Patriarch has any influence over other than the handful of Orthodox Christians still left in Turkey.

  • nnmns

    Nate that’s interesting. Would you care to say more about the relationship of your church to this patriarch? Is it similar to that of the RCC and the pope?

  • nina

    Was this story even reported by mainstream media? I, being an Orthodox Christain, searched for this after Obama’s speech was announced. WHY was this NOT reported???

  • Nate W

    No, the relationship of Orthodox churches to the Ecumenical Patriarch is not that similar as the relationship of Catholic churches to the Pope. The Patriarch is a local Metropolitan Bishop essentially no different from, say, the Metropolitan Bishop of the Russian church; he doesn’t have authority over all of Orthodoxy in the way the Pope and the Vatican have authority over all Catholics. What makes him special is that in ecumenical gatherings, he’s given an honor as the greatest among equals, a representative leader of sorts (such as how we viewed the Bishop of Rome before the great schism between the churches), but he does not have anything like the infallibility or individual authority that the popes would eventually claim.
    He is the local bishop for the few Orthodox Christians left around Turkey, for small sections of Greece, and for the “diaspora,” as the Greek churches in North America are sometimes called. The current problem in North America is that there are overlapping jurisdictions, since there are so many different churches that different immigrant groups brought over. The Ecumenical Patriarch has tried to resolve the issue basically by expanding his government over all the Orthodox churches in America, which is something that most of us native Americans don’t like too much, because the EP and his advisors have little understanding of the American situation. So we have churches like the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Orthodox Church, which are predominantly convert churches, that have their own leadership and that are trying to develop a more indigenous American Orthodoxy, but the EP keeps trying to interfere that.
    The good thing (and the the thing that makes the resolution of conflicts longer to sort out) is that Orthodoxy has a strong notion of reception–the local parishes must freely receive decisions make at higher administrative levels before they become binding–so it’s not possible that the EP just unilaterally announce control and then excommunicate anyone who disagrees. The American Orthodox Christians themselves will have a big role to play in deciding their own future.

  • nnmns

    Nate, thanks again. Very interesting.

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