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27th Feb 2024

Orthodox patriarch blesses Turkish EU entry

Despite ongoing disputes over Christian and other religious minorities in Turkey, the world's leading Orthodox prelate, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, has endorsed Turkey's bid to join the European Union and appealed to Brussels not to make religious or cultural differences an obstacle to membership.

"We must not exclude from the European family somebody who simply has a different belief from us," the Istanbul-based cleric told MEP's in the European parliament on Wednesday (24 September).

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"Europe should not see any religion that is tolerant of others as alien to itself. The great religions, like the European project, can be a force that transcends nationalism and can even transcend nihilism and fundamentalism by focusing their faithful on what unites us as human beings, and by fostering a dialogue about what divides us," the white-bearded clergyman told MEPs.

"What I and the majority of the people of Turkey wish is full integration, full membership of the European Union, on condition that the criteria and preconditions that apply to all candidates are abided by," he later told journalists in Brussels.

Bartholomew I said, however, that Ankara needs to improve protection for religious minorities as part of wider human rights reforms.

He called in particular for Turkish authorities to allow the reopening of a Greek Orthodox seminary and return church property, describing a dispute at the heart of legal action currently before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Turkey's population of almost 75 million includes 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 23,000 Jews and approximately 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians.

Ankara launched EU membership talks in October 2005 and has since opened six out of 35 negotiating chapters. Eight areas are blocked from further progress by member states due to Ankara's failure to meet its trading commitments to EU member Cyprus.

The Orthodox cleric was invited to address MEPs in the context of the "European Year of Intercultural Dialogue" programme aiming at creating closer links between European cultures, languages, ethnic groups and religions.

MEPs boycott religious visits

Several Green, Liberal and Socialist MEPs refrained from listening to the Orthodox leader's address in a protest of what they see as the inappropriate intertwining of political and religious matters.

Belgian Socialist MEP Veronique De Keyser in a press release said they were "sound[ing] the alarm for democracy and the separation of church and state."

The Belgian deputy warned that under the "mantle of the intercultural year" religions "have gone on the offensive" - something that violates the principle of separation of church and state on which the European parliament is based.

She also warned that if people were not careful in upholding the division between politics and religion "The extreme right might take advantage."

Still no women in sight

"The real reason for these invitations of religious leaders is to, ultimately, bring the Pope to Brussels," Dutch Liberal MEP Sophie in 't Veld told EUobserver.

"That would, for many MEPs, be the ultimate achievement of their careers - as well as a photo opportunity never before seen," she explained, adding that she was getting "tired of the whole thing."

Ms in 't Veld earlier this year raised her voice against the fact that neither women nor non-religious groups, such as organised humanists, were represented in the list of invitees.

Replying to the criticism, the parliament's president, Hans-Gert Poettering, then pointed out that the list of speakers was not final, and that "with goodwill," the EP would be able to produce "as balanced a list as possible."

Only one woman speaker - Ms Asma Jahangir, a UN rapporteur on freedom of religion - has so far appeared in Brussels as part of the programme, despite the fact that various Christians around Europe are led in worship by female priests, pastors and bishops, and only after pressure from MEPs who demanded female representation.

"Curiously, on the day Ms Jahangir spoke, Mr Poettering had other things to do. It is a matter of courtesy, if she is invited to speak, he can at least show the courtesy of being present in plenary," Ms in 't Veld said.

"I am offended, as a politician and as a woman."

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