Religious faith ‘should unite, not divide’, Tsipras says during visit to Halki Theological School

Wrapping up his visit to the Theological School of Halki, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Wednesday said he was optimistic that his next visit would be made together with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, in order to announce the re-opening of the island’s historic Orthodox seminary.

He also sent a message to Ankara, saying that religious faith “should unite and not divide” and noting that the Muslim minority in Greece and the Greek minority in Turkey should act as “bridges” between the two countries. At the same time, he categorically ruled out that the reopening of the Theological School on Halki might be the object of bilateral talks between the two countries.

“It is great joy and honour for me, being here with you today,” Tsipras said in his speech at the seminary, situated on the second-largest of the Princes’ Islands off the Turkish coast, in the Sea of Marmara.

Tsipras said that he felt blessed to be able to visit “the most important monuments of Hellenism and Orthodoxy, here in Istanbul; monuments of world cultural heritage that belong to all mankind, ecumenical monuments.”

“But we do not overlook the fact that they are monuments of Hellenism, of Hellenism and of a Greek community, a Greek and Orthodox minority, here in Istanbul, which has had great difficulties. It was injured, persecuted and decimated but did not lose its roots. It may look like the trunk of a wounded tree, but the roots are there, they breathe and are still here,” he added.

Tsipras expressed his joy and sense of honour to be on the historic island, which he called a historic and sacred place, and noted that the island had been chosen in the 9th century by Saint Photios the Great, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, to found the monastery of the Holy Trinity, where the Halki Theological School was later housed after it was founded by Patriarch Germanus V, in 1844.

The prime minister said that it was a school that a great many scholars, orthodox theologians and erudite priests had attended and which had offered much, including several great personalities that later became important church leaders, many of whom had also served on the patriarchal throne, such as the current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Apart from the historical importance of his visit, which also coincides with a major day for Halki and its Theological School, as well as for the Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey, the prime minister said he was delighted to discover “that the presence of all of us here was not the subject of discord, but a reason for hope and joy.”

He highlighted “the positive reaction of ordinary citizens of this historic place, the Turkish citizens that sped to the docks as soon as our ships arrived in tens and hundreds to greet us, to shake our hand and express their sincere love, which is at the heart of the Greek-Turkish friendship we want to build.”

“I deeply believe that religions, faith in our different religions – monotheistic religions that are centered on humanity and hence the love of humanity and toward our fellow humans, regardless of where and in whom they believe – both the religions and minorities, the Muslim minority in Greece and the Greek minority in Turkey, must not be a field of conflict and tension but bridges between our peoples,” Tsipras.

“I am saying this because the self-imposed obligation of our governments to defend and protect the interests, claims and rights of minorities in each country separately is not part of a bilateral agreement, negotiation or exchange,” he added.

Tsipras noted that “it is not the subject of bilateral negotiation but a self-imposed obligation and proof that we represent states and governments that respect the principle of the equality and religious freedoms of our citizens.”

“We have nothing to prove to each other; we have to prove things to ourselves, to the international community and to the principles and values we stand for,” he underlined.

“This day gives the right messages… There are issues of disagreement between the two governments and the two countries, but we can only solve them through dialogue and good will,” Tsipras added.

“I want to recognise that the Turkish government has taken steps in the past few years, particularly on the issue of the property of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a large part of which has been returned, and I want to believe that we are close to that day when these steps will become even more significant,” he added.

The prime minister also thanked the Ecumenical Patriarch for showing him around the school, the classrooms and the extensive library with over 100,000 books that the patriarch had once studied in as a teenager, while he also referred to efforts underway with the support of the Greek parliament to record and digitise the contents of the library.

“The message that we want to emphasise today, in this historic place, is that the reopening of the School of Halki will not be an object or message of discord or disputes, of differences and division. It will be a message of friendship, mutual understanding and brotherhood between our peoples,” Tsipras said.

“I like to believe we are close to the day when these rooms you have shown me will once again be filled with the happy laughter of school children and students,” he added, while also expressing the Greek government’s support for the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate “as the guardian of global and panhuman values”.

Tsipras was the first serving Greek prime minister to visit Halki, where he was warmly greeted by residents of the island and members of the Greek minority in Turkey, as well as pilgrims.

Among those accompanying the Greek premier on the visit was an adviser to the Turkish presidency, Ibrahim Kalin, who joined Patriarch Bartholomew and the prime minister in the symbolic planting of a tree in the forecourt of the Theological School, as well as Greek Education Minister Costas Gavroglou, Alternate Foreign Minister George Katrougalos and Deputy Foreign Minister Markos Bolaris.