Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, center, and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, right, visit the Theological School of Halki on Turkey’s Heybeliada Island on Wednesday. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

American presidents, religious freedom advocates, the European Union and Orthodox Christian leaders have for years issued desperate appeals to Turkey’s government to reopen a shuttered Greek Orthodox seminary on an island off Istanbul, but to no avail.

Before it was closed in 1971, the Theological School of Halki stood for more than a century as the primary center of scholarship and clerical training for generations of Greek Orthodox leaders. Now, stripped of its educational role, its classrooms — emptied by arguments over politics, nationalism and minority rights — are kept pristine in the stubborn hope the students will someday return.

The latest attempt to sway the Turkish government has come from Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, who called this week for the seminary to be reopened during a two-day visit to Turkey. His cordial meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — despite a long history of conflict between the two nations and worrying recent flare-ups — has raised hopes among Orthodox leadership and members of Turkey’s ethnic Greek minority that a resolution to the deadlock over the seminary may finally be at hand.

Erdogan, whose government is struggling with a faltering economy, has recently sought to improve Turkey’s relations with Europe and the United States, fueling speculation that his outreach to the West could include allowing the seminary to resume operations.

“Next time, I hope I will be here with Erdogan to reopen the school,” Tsipras said during his visit Wednesday, addressing an audience that included the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians, as well as Ibrahim Kalin, a senior adviser to Erdogan.

Many saw promising symbolism in Tsipras’s visit. He was the first sitting Greek prime minister to visit the seminary, which was built on a hilltop on the island of Heybeliada, on the site of a 9th-century monastery.


Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras waters a tree alongside Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I during a visit to the Theological School of Halki on Wednesday. Turkey and Greece agreed Tuesday to keep “channels of dialogue” open. (Emrah Gurel/AP)

However, the recent history of the seminary has been an endless cycle of promises, raised expectations and dashed hopes. 

Turkish authorities closed the seminary 47 years ago under a law that brought higher education, including religious schools, under state control.

The closure threatened an existential crisis for the Istanbul-based patriarchate, a remnant of the Greek Byzantine Empire that ruled for more than a thousand years from Constantinople. Because Turkish law requires the patriarch to be a Turkish citizen, the loss of the seminary — and the shrinking population of Turkey’s ethnic Greek minority — has led church officials to warn they may not be able to nurture a future leader.  

Over the past 15 years, Orthodox leaders hoped Turkey’s push to improve its human rights record as part of its effort to win E.U. membership might force Ankara to loosen restrictions on the seminary.

The patriarchate gained high-profile allies, including President Barack Obama, who brought up the closure of the seminary when Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, visited Washington in 2009. Time and again, Bartholomew, citing pressure from the West or promises by Turkish officials, insisted the reopening of the seminary was imminent.

Increasingly, the seminary’s fate appears tied to Turkey’s disputes with Greece.

Erdogan has repeatedly called on Greece to provide more rights to Muslims in northern Greece while suggesting the reopening of the seminary could be part of the benefit. The issue is one of a litany of arguments that have divided the two countries for decades and include territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea and a tug of war over the divided island of Cyprus.

As Tsipras began his visit to Turkey on Tuesday, Erdogan reiterated his demand for the return of eight Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece after a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. “We expect more cooperation from our neighbor Greece on this subject,” Erdogan said.

He took a softer tone when it came to the seminary, fondly recalling a visit there when he was a schoolboy. “They had a very rich library,” he said. “There were 38,000 books.”