ANKARA, Turkey – The spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians was given back the deed to a historic building on Monday in a move hailed as a symbolic but important victory for the formerly dominant church in Turkey.
The Turkish government returned control of the 19th-century orphanage, one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople after a ruling for the church in the European Court of Human Rights.
The European Union has called for Turkey to return dozens of other properties seized from Jewish and Christian foundations decades ago. Several court cases are currently under way by minority religious groups against the Turkish state.
The Patriarchate in Constantinople — the spiritual leader of Turkey's Greek minority — dates from the Orthodox Greek Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453.
Turkey, which is overwhelmingly Muslim and officially secular, has long been criticized by the EU and human rights groups for its dealings with its religious minorities, including the confiscation of property. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has, however, taken steps to improve minority groups' rights to meet some EU demands.
Turkey took control of the 19th-century building in 1997, many years after it was abandoned by a Greek Orthodox foundation that oversaw orphanages, on the grounds that it had fallen into disuse. The European court ruled in June that the land the building sits on is registered to the church, giving it de facto ownership.
"It is an important development to show respect for law, democracy and minorities," said Cem Murat Sofuoglu, an attorney for the Patriarchate. "A right has been taken back."
Patriarch Bartholomew I — who is known as the "Green Patriarch" for his environmentally friendly attitudes — plans to turn the building into an institute for the environment after it is restored, Sofuoglu said.
But he said the government had refused to issued the necessary permits for the maintenance and repair of the large structure.
Greek foreign ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras welcomed the "deeply significant" decision.
"(The decision) also opens the way for the preservation and use of this historic architectural monument, he said.
The EU has also called on the government to reopen a seminary belonging to the church that trained generations of Ecumenical Patriarchs, including present leader Bartholomew I, until it was closed by Turkey in 1971.
The official argument for its closure is that a religious institution without government oversight is not compatible with the secular institutions of Turkey, a country where all Muslim clerics are trained and paid by the government.
The church, however, said Ankara refuses to open the seminary, on an island outside Istanbul, because it wants to prevent the church from raising new leaders. The church's leader has to be a Turkish citizen, which makes it difficult for the dwindling Greek community of several thousand to produce any candidates.
In a move to address the problem, the government recently granted Turkish citizenship to 12 senior clerics at the church, so that they could succeed the 70-year-old Bartholomew.