By Ayla Jean Yackley
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan promised democratic reforms on Saturday in a rare meeting with Turkey’s religious minority leaders highlighting the issue of minority rights, a key stumbling block in its EU membership bid.
Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and leaders of the small Armenian, Jewish, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic communities had lunch with Erdogan and senior ministers on Buyukada island near Istanbul, a patriarchate official told Reuters on condition his name not be used.
The lunch meeting coincided with government reform moves to address decades-old tensions with the country’s 12 million Kurds. Erdogan, a devout Muslim whose government is viewed with suspicion by some for its Islamist roots, alluded in his speech to a broader reform process.
«It is now for us essential to embrace all 71.5 million of this nation’s people in respect and love,» he said, repeating his
opposition to ethnic nationalism and saying his government kept an equal distance to all faiths. «Are there shortcomings in implementation? There are. We will overcome these together in this struggle. I believe this democratic initiative will change many things in this country,» he said in comments reported by broadcaster CNN Turk and confirmed by patriarchate official.
«VERY FRIENDLY MEETING»
Erdogan and Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox, later toured the Aya Yorgi Church, where they had a private conversation in which the patriarch voiced his community’s concerns, the official said. The two men last met in 2006. Erdogan and Bartholomew also visited a former orphanage on Buyukada that the Turkish state seized from a Greek Orthodox foundation a decade ago. The European Court of Human Rights ruled last year Turkey had wrongly confiscated the property, but the government has yet to implement that ruling.
Bartholomew also raised the issue of the closed Orthodox seminary on the nearby island of Heybeli, or Halki in Greek, but Erdogan made no statement on the issue, the official said. «We believe the prime minister is looking for a way to open the school. There is movement on this,» the official said. «It was a very positive, very friendly meeting.»
Turkey signaled last month the seminary may open after pressure from the EU and U.S. President Barack Obama, who has called for its restoration during a visit to Turkey in April. The EU has made re-opening the Halki seminary a litmus test of the government’s commitment to religious freedom for non-Muslims in largely Muslim but officially secular Turkey.
Turkey closed the Halki seminary in 1971 during a period of tension with Greece over Cyprus and a crackdown on religious education that also included Islamist schools. About 2,500 ethnic Greeks remain in Turkey, as well as approximately 60,000 Armenians, 20,000 Jews and 10,000 Syriacs.
The meeting with the minority leaders was organized by Turkey’s chief EU negotiator Egemen Bagis, who was in attendance with the other ministers.
(Writing by Daren Butler; editing by Ralph Boulton)