ISTANBUL (Reuters Life!) - An Istanbul seminary closed in 1971 is hosting its first public event in 40 years, raising hopes it may shortly be reopened by Turkey and once again educate priests for the Greek Orthodox community.
The European Union and the United States have pressed EU membership hopeful Turkey to reopen the historic school, which occupies a beautiful and commanding site at the top of the island of Heybeliada, or Halki in Greek.
“Tracing Istanbul,” an exhibition of works by Greek artists inspired by the city, has filled the school’s evocative, abandoned classrooms with paintings and brought life back to the corridors.
“This exhibition sends an invitation — come and see the classrooms which need students and the blackboards which need teachers,” said Anastasia Manou, one of the Greek organizers of the show, which is due to move to Athens in a month.
The paintings show scenes of Istanbul, including the Hagia Sophia, the most important church of the Byzantine Empire.
In one classroom hangs a relief of a man who 40 years ago was set to attend the seminary only to see it close.
A Turkish court ordered the school shut in 1971 under a law curbing non-state religious education that also applied to Muslims. The EU has said Halki’s closure undermines freedom of religion and Turkey must expand non-Muslim minorities’ rights.
“The opening of the school is something we are working on in a very determined manner,” Turkey’s EU chief negotiator Egemen Bagis told Reuters.
“There are approximately 3,000 Greek Orthodox citizens of Turkey and they need priests. It is our responsibility to help them prepare, teach and organize the priests they need.”
Bagis observed however that Athens had no mosque for its Muslim citizens, and steps of good will by both governments would help political ties.
The exhibition follows an historic mass last month at the Sumela Monastery in northeast Turkey, the first mass there since ethnic Greeks were expelled in 1923 as part of a huge population exchange following the drawing of new borders for modern Turkey.
This month another landmark religious service is planned to be held in a 10th century Armenian church on an island in Lake Van.
“At the opening of the exhibition we saw Greeks and Turks mingle and come closer... we are hopeful the school will be reopened soon and that the future will be bright,” said Metropolitan Apostolos Daniilidis, an Orthodox bishop at the monastery attached to the Halki school.
Although few Greeks remain in Istanbul, it is still home to the patriarchate, a vestige of the Byzantine era.
“It is a wonderful, emotional feeling to wander around this building,” said an elderly visitor from Athens, who declined to give her name.
Editing by Paul Casciato