The İstanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, expressed frustration with Turkish authorities, saying the patriarchate has not received written permission to hold the Divine Liturgy at the historic Sümela Monastery in Turkey’s northwestern Trabzon province on Aug. 15, the Cumhuriyet daily reported.
The controversy emerged after the announcement of the planned liturgy. A representative from the Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP) in Turkey questioned the move in the Turkish Parliament, alleging it violates the Treaty of Lausanne.
Speaking during a service at the Church of the Panagia Koumariotissa in İstanbul’s Heybeliada district, Bartholomew said, “The deputy said this operation violates the Treaty of Lausanne. How is that possible? Lausanne says other things too … they didn’t give them to us. And the MP comes to tell us that we are violating the Treaty of Lausanne.”
In Turkey, Christians, as a minority group, experience various challenges and rights violations, according to the 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom released by the US Department of State. The 1923 Lausanne Treaty formally recognizes the rights of Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews and Greek Orthodox Christians. However, Christian denominations still find themselves grappling with limitations on their religious rights.
A significant point of contention has been the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary’s prolonged closure. The seminary, affiliated with the Greek Orthodox Church, was shuttered in 1971 after the Turkish Parliament enacted legislation banning private institutions of higher education. Despite multiple international critiques and assurances from the Turkish government, the seminary remains closed, hampering the Greek Orthodox Church’s ability to train clergy domestically.
The patriarch further addressed concerns related to Aug. 15, which also marks the anniversary of Trabzon’s conquest by the Ottomans. Bartholomew clarified that the liturgy’s intention is solely to honor the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, not to engage in political statements.
The patriarch highlighted the importance of facing history directly and truthfully, referencing an incident where a journalist’s exhibition portraying the 1964 removal of Greeks from Turkey’s Imbros Island has been canceled after it was targeted on social media for allegedly being offensive to Turks.
Bartholomew urged understanding, emphasizing that their only wish was to pray according to their faith for a short time at the monastery.
Sümela Monastery, which dates back to the fourth century, is considered one of Turkey’s most important faith tourism sites and is included in UNESCO’s temporary list of World Heritage Sites.
It was reopened on Aug. 15, 2010 for the Christian Orthodox community following an 88-year hiatus. But it has remained closed since 2015 due to the risk of landslide from the neighboring Mount Karadağ. The monastery is nestled in a steep cliff at an altitude of around 1,200 meters. It is reopened to visitors for short periods of time.