The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said in an interview on a American television show last week that Turkey's leaders, including the prime minister, have been unresponsive to concrete concerns he raised about religious inequality in the country. The interview has been condemned by the Turkish government. This latest row comes as international criticism is growing over Turkey's treatment of its small Christian minority which numbers less than one percent of its population.
One of the world's most important Christian leaders, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, lives in a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. As the patriarch of 300 million Orthodox Christians, he lives in Istanbul, Turkey where his church has been headquartered for more than 1,000 years.
By citizenship his nationality is Turkish, but he belongs ethnically to the small remnants of the Greek community in Turkey.
At the turn of the last century there were nearly two million Orthodox Christians in Turkey; 1.5 million Greeks were expelled as part of a population exchange with Greece; and 150,000 left after violent anti-Christian riots in Istanbul in 1955.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch, in an interview with the U.S.-based program 60 Minutes that was aired last week, complained of the poor treatment by Turkish authorities of Christians continues.
"We are treated as citizens of second class," he said.
When the Patriarch was asked why his church and the remaining followers did not leave Turkey for Greece, his answer drew even more controversy, making headlines all over the Turkey.
"This is the continuation of Jerusalem and for us it is equally holy and sacred land. We prefer to stay here, even crucified sometimes," he said. "In the gospel it is written that it is given to us not only to believe in Christ, but also suffer for Christ."
While the Greek foreign ministry issued a statement supporting the patriarch, his comment shocked the Turkish government, who saw him as a supporter.
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quick to condemn the Patriarch.
He said that he regards the use of the word crucifixion extremely unfortunate. "I would like to see this as an undesired slip of the tongue, he said. "We cannot accept comparisons that we do not deserve."
What lies behind Patriarch Bartholomew's criticism is his growing frustration over the forced closure of the country's only local Orthodox Patriarchal Seminary, called Halki. Since Turkey only allows Turkish-born citizens to become the patriarch, shutting down of the seminary essentially cuts off the ability of the Orthodox Church to produce future generations of leaders.
Deacon Doratheos, who looks after the closed school, says it is becoming increasingly difficult for the church to replace aging priests.
"Each church, each chapel must have its own priest. We cannot imagine a baby unbaptized or one who is dead not to have a priest to conduct the last prayers for him," he said. "All those graduates before hand from this school, they were very successful as priests, as archbishops and as patriarchs."
Calls for seminary re-opening
Even the U.S. president Barack Obama raised the issue when addressing the Turkish parliament earlier this year.
"Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state," he said. "Which is why steps like opening Halki Seminary will send such a an important signal inside Turkey and beyond."
Obama again raised the issue when the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited him this month in Washington.
The European Union is also pressing for the seminary's re-opening.
Wilfred Martens, president of the European People's Party, one of main blocs in the European parliament, says the fate of the school is being closely monitored in Europe.
"This is important on the content, but it is also extremely important as a sort of symbol," said Martens. "If the school could be re-opened, that is a positive signal that something fundamental changed in Turkey. Religious freedom is a fundamental right."
The Turkish government says its willing to open the school if it can be incorporated into a state university. But the offer has been dismissed by the Patriarch who claims the school's specialized role of training priests makes it impossible to incorporate within the country's university structure.
Metropolitan Gennadios of Sasima is a senior member of the patriarchate in Istanbul. He says the dispute is about fundemental rights.
"We would like have our school as it was before," said he said. "It is not a medical school or school for engineer. It is school which is just to train priests for our community here in Istanbul but also other orthodox churches around the world. "
A recent study published by the Pew Foundation this month ranked Turkey 14th on a list of governmental restrictions on religion. The list was led by Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uzbekistan and China. Religious freedom is one of the key demands of membership requirement of the European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join. Observers say the latest controversy over religious freedom will do little enhance that bid.