The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church said Christians are treated like second-class citizens in Turkey, the land where the equivalent of the Orthodox Church's "Vatican" lies.
His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world, said in a CBS "60 Minutes" interview broadcast this week that Turkey's leaders, including the prime minister, have been unresponsive to concrete concerns he raised about religious inequality in the country.
Authorities have seized church properties, closed Orthodox churches, monasteries and schools, causing Orthodox leaders and parishioners to fear that the Turkish government wants to force the oldest church in the world out of the country.
CBS correspondent Bob Simon noted that all that is left of the command center of Constantinople, now known as Istanbul and that once ruled the former Christian empire, is a complex of nine buildings "tightly squeezed" on less than an acre of land.
"We are treated as citizens of second class," lamented the patriarch, who noted that the Orthodox Church took root on the land long before the country of Turkey was established and became a nation where the population is 99 percent Muslim. "We don't feel like we enjoy our full rights as Turkey citizens."
In particular, the patriarch cited the forced closure of the country's only local Orthodox Patriarchal Seminary, called Halki, without proper reason. Since Turkey only allows Turkey-born citizens to become the patriarch, shutting down of the seminary essentially cuts off the ability of the Orthodox Church to produce future generations of leaders.
"It is a pity. It is a shame and a crime to keep such a school closed and unused for no reason," said the patriarch, who is an alumni of Halki. "This school prepared people who preach peace, who preach unity, who preach love. So not giving to the church the possibility to prepare these people (priests), we offend human dignity."
Bartholomew dismissed the idea of relocating the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He emphasized that the Orthodox Church was established in Constantinople and has continued to exist in the same location for centuries.
"We love our country. We are born here," said Bartholomew, explaining why the Church's headquarters cannot be moved. "We want to die here. We feel that our mission is here, as it has been for 17 entire centuries."
He added in a sad tone of voice while looking at the ground, "I wonder why the authorities of our country do not respect this history."
In addition to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Turkey is home to some of the oldest Christian sites in the world, including the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537 A.D., as well as many of the most famous monuments and churches in Christendom, including those of Cappadocia.
The Patriarch, who was not hostile towards the Turkish government in the interview, concluded by saying, "We prefer to stay here, even crucified sometimes, because in the Gospel it is written that it is given to us not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for Christ."
Noting that he has never believed that the Orthodox Church could eventually die out in Turkey, he said, "We believe in the resurrection. After the crucifixion the resurrection comes."
There were nearly 2 million Orthodox Christians in what is now Turkey at the turn of the 19th century. In 1923, Turkey expelled 1.5 million Christians, and in 1955 about 150,000 Christians fled the country after violent anti-Christian violence. Today, there are only 4,000 Orthodox Christians left.