When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and his Islamic-rooted party came under fierce fire this summer from secularists, who came close to persuading the country's supreme court to bar both from politics, he called the campaign an attack against religious freedom and a threat to Turkey's efforts to join the European Union.
Yet in nearly six years in power, Erdogan has shown no inclination to extend even a modicum of religious freedom to the most revered Christian institution in Turkey - the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the spiritual center of 300 million Orthodox Christians throughout the world. As a result, Turkey's persecution of the Patriarchate looms as a major obstacle to its European aspirations, and rightly so.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which was established in the fourth century and once possessed holdings as vast as those of the Vatican, has been reduced to a small, besieged enclave in a decaying corner of Istanbul called the Phanar, or Lighthouse. Almost all of its property has been seized by successive Turkish governments, its schools have been closed and its prelates are taunted by extremists who demonstrate almost daily outside the Patriarchate, calling for its ouster from Turkey.
The ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I, is often jeered and threatened when he ventures outside his walled enclave. He is periodically burned in effigy by Turkish chauvinists and Muslim fanatics. Government bureaucrats take pleasure in harassing him, summoning him to their offices to question and berate him about irrelevant issues, blocking his efforts to make repairs in the few buildings still under his control, and issuing veiled threats about what he says and does when he travels abroad.
Successive Turkish governments have followed policies that deliberately belittle the patriarch, refusing to recognize his ecumenical status as the spiritual leader of a major religious faith but viewing him only as the head of the small Greek Orthodox community of Istanbul.
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