- Associated Press - Sunday, August 15, 2010

MACKA, Turkey | Orthodox Christians held the first service in almost 90 years at an ancient monastery on the side of a Turkish mountain Sunday, after the government allowed worship there in a gesture toward religious minorities.

At least 1,500 pilgrims, including from Greece and Russia, traveled to the Byzantine-era monastery of Sumela for the service led by Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

The Islamic-oriented government, which is aiming to expand freedoms as part of its bid to join the European Union, has said worship can take place at the monastery once a year. Services previously were banned.

The symbolic event also was likely to boost reconciliation efforts between Turkey and Greece, two NATO allies that came to the brink of war three times between 1974 and 1996 over the ethnically divided island of Cyprus and territorial rights in the Aegean Sea.

Sumela, a spectacular structure cut into the side of a mountain, was abandoned around the time of Turkey’s foundation in 1923. The last service was held a year earlier amid conflict between Turks and Greeks. The remote site near the Black Sea has become a big tourist draw in the last few decades.

The patriarch, who is based in Istanbul, wore white vestments with golden lace, and carried a scepter. Priests sang hymns and spread incense amid faded frescoes. Visitors who could not fit into the crowded monastery watched on a giant television screen several hundred yards below the building.

“It is a very exciting moment for us Greeks because it’s the first time we get to have such a service,” said 24-year-old Ketevan Nadareishvili. “We can pray on the land of my great-great-grandfathers.”

The patriarch said he hoped the desire to pray would not be misinterpreted.

“The culture of living together is a heritage our civilization left for us. Let’s make that heritage live on, and let us teach all, so that we do not suffer anymore, and families do not perish,” Bartholomew said in Turkish after the service. “The Sumela monastery has lived like a legend for decades among us, patiently waiting for this day to come.”

Despite the sense of celebration, the story of Orthodox Christians and religious expression in general in Turkey is a troubled one. Turkey’s government says it will increase freedoms, but critics believe change is too slow in a country with a staunchly secular system introduced by the national founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Most of Turkey’s 72 million people are Muslim, but even many of those feel that their rights are curtailed by law. Female employees of the state are not allowed to wear Muslim head scarves at work, and in 2008, the Constitutional Court struck down a government-backed amendment lifting a ban on the wearing of head scarves in universities.

The Greek Orthodox community in Turkey has dwindled to about 2,000. One of their key demands is the reopening of the Halki Theological School, a Greek Orthodox seminary on Heybeliada Island near Istanbul.

The school was closed to new students in 1971 after a law put religious and military training under state control. It shut its doors in 1985, when the last five students graduated. Western leaders, including President Obama, want Turkey to allow it to reopen. On a visit to Greece in May, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he was optimistic it would reopen.

Turkey traditionally has viewed the Istanbul-based patriarchate as a threat to state unity partly because of its ties with Greece, though relations between the two countries are improving. The patriarchate dates from the Byzantine Empire, which collapsed when Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople — now Istanbul — in 1453.

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