The photograph above shows Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu meeting with his All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, symbolic spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox churches. It would seem to be a typical political courtesy call with one exception: nothing of the sort has previously occurred since the foundation of the Turkish Republic. In the past week or so, Davutoglu has met with not only the Ecumenical Patriarch but with a senior Archbishop at the Armenian Patriarchate (the Patriarch is ailing) and other Christian leaders. and Turkey has expressed hope that two Syriac patriarchates of Antioch, now based outside Turkey, will return.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, traditionally known as the Phanar in Greek (Fener in modern Turkish), today has primarily symbolic importance among the world's Eastern Orthodox, but the Ecumenical Patriarch under the Turkish Republic has largely been ignored when not being harassed. It has essentially been treated as one more local religious body.Thus the meeting is extraordinary.. That a basically Islamist-oriented government is reaching out to the Christian Patriarchates where the secular Kemalist regimes never did is of course of interest, though Kemalism's hostility to religious establishments is at least in part involved, along with historic nationalism and ethnic resentments. Turkey has traditionally rejected the title of "Ecumenical" in the Patriarchate's title, and a similar usage in the case of the Syriac Orthodox Church.
I doubt if I need to elaborate on the awkward position of the Armenian Patriarchate in modern Turkey.
In presumably related news, Turkey is reaching out to churches once based in Turkey but now headquartered in the Arab world. Last year in my discussion of the "Lost Cities of Northern Syria," I noted how Antioch, once the city where Christians were "first called Christians" and one of the powerful sees of the early church, had so declined. There are still five Christian prelates with the title Patriarch of Antioch, but not one resides in the ancient city, now Antakya in Turkey. The Orthodox (Antiochean) Patriarch, the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, and the Melkite Catholic Patriarch all reside in Damascus; the Syriac Catholic Patriarch in Beirut and the Maronite Catholic Patriarch in Bkerke, Lebanon. (There will be a quiz.) Now, the Turks are apparently making a bid to persuade the Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox to return to Turkey; Davutoglu has met with their officials inside Turkey.. (The Syriac Catholics split from the Syriac Orthodox and joined Rome in the 1700s. The Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate was in Mardin, Turkey, until 1933, when it was forced to relocate to Homs, Syria. In 1959 it moved to Damascus.) While neither church seems eager to jump at the offer (the Syriac Orthodox have some very unpleasant memories of their treatment in the early part of the last century), they are also extremely nervous about their future in a post-Asad Syria, which may be part of Turkey's calculus.