Good news for Orthodox in Turkey?

ISTANBUL -- There are two front gates into the walled compound that protects the home of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar's main gate because it was welded shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: "We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. ... Patriarch you will perish!"

The capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. Yet 400,000 Orthodox Christians remained in greater Istanbul early in the 20th century. That number fell to 150,000 in 1960. Today fewer than 2,000 remain, the most symbolic minority in a land that is 99 percent Turkish. They worship in 86 churches served by 32 priests and deacons, most 60 or older.

What the Orthodox urgently need is an active seminary and patriarchate officials are convinced the European Union will help them get one, as Turkey races to begin the formal application process. At the top of the list of reforms sought by the EU are improved rights for non-Muslims.

Thus, during the recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization Summit, President George W. Bush held a strategic meeting with Istanbul Mufti Mustafa Cagrici, Armenian Patriarch Meshrob Mutafyan, Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Cetin and Patriarch Bartholomew.

"The European Union here is not focused so much on religion as it is on basic human rights," said Phanar spokesman Father Dositheos, through an interpreter. "For us this means hope. Any attention to the rights of minorities has to be good for us in the long run. Here, a little bit of religious freedom would go a long way."

But hard questions remain, as terrorists compete with Turkish reformers for headlines.

Western politicos are anxious for Turkey to serve as a bridge between East and West, between secularized Europe and the Muslim world. But others worry that decades of work by Turkey to mandate secularism on its people will have the opposite effect -- creating fertile soil for the growth of radical forms of Islam.

The Greek government now backs the entry of its once bitter rival into the European Union. But one of the most outspoken critics of this move is the Orthodox archbishop of Greece.

"Turkey is not a European country and, while its culture is worthy of our respect, it is not compatible with our European culture," said Archbishop Christodoulos, during an interview in Athens. "This is not a matter of prejudice. ... Our European culture has a sense of unity that comes from the spiritual traditions and the common spiritual roots of these countries."

But officials at the Phanar disagree and hope to verify reports that Turkey will take concrete steps to demonstrate its acceptance of some Western values -- such as religious liberty. The Orthodox and other religious minorities are anxious to have more control over their finances, to be able to grant work permits to foreign clergy, to freely elect their own leaders and to build and rebuild sanctuaries.

During his visit, Bush said he was satisfied that Turkey will soon let the Orthodox reopen the Halki seminary on Heybeliada Island, which was closed in 1971 under laws strictly controlling all religious education. In addition to training new clergy, this might strengthen two surviving monasteries. This is crucial since, under Turkish law, any monk who is elected Orthodox patriarch must be a Turkish citizen.

But change is slow and uncertain in this ancient city. The gate to the Phanar was been sealed for many generations.

"We hear rumors. The government officials say Turkey will allow us to reopen the seminary if the church will reopen the gate," said a church official who asked not to named. "The church says it may reopen the gate if the Turks allow the seminary to be opened. The government says it will allow us to reopen the seminary if we open the gate. We are used to this."