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The last patriarch in Turkey (and why)

We live in the age in which print and video forms of journalism are merging into something new and, at this point, uncertain. Now, if you are paying close attention you know that the problem isn't that journalists are flopping when it comes to moving into the "multi-platform future." There has been lots of progress there. The problem is that the Internet age has wrecked the advertising business model that has been sustaining the news industry for several generations.

Anyway, part of my job at the Washington Journalism Center is to convince students who think that they want to "go into television" that they now have to prepare to work in print reporting as well as in video and audio journalism. The print reporters, of course, have to learn how to handle some of the duties on the other side of that divide.

If you don't believe that progress is being made, then just surf around at ESPN.com -- the most technically advanced and complex site in news. Try to imagine a site that covers politics or culture with the depth that this site offers in sports coverage.

Doubters may also want to click here and take a look at a fine feature story that I read the other day at CNN.com, of all places. Please know that I started digging into this piece with plenty of doubts, since (a) I am Orthodox and (b) it covers a subject that I have written about, based a small bit on first-hand research in Istanbul in 2004.

The headline on the CNN piece asks a blunt question: "The last Orthodox patriarch in Turkey?" That is not a paranoid question, as this solid wire-service feature makes clear.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is the living embodiment of an ancient tradition. From his historic base in Istanbul, Turkey, the 270th Patriarch of Constantinople claims to be the direct successor of the Apostle Andrew.

Today he's considered "first among equals" in the leadership of the Greek Orthodox church, and is the spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world. But few of them are in his own home country.

"We are a small Christian minority," Bartholomew laments. "We have suffered because of Greek-Turkish confrontation, struggle, and a lack of mutual trust and confidence. And that is why we lost most of our faithful."

Turkey's once-flourishing Greek community is fading away. The country is predominantly Muslim and led by a secular government that's had a complicated relationship with the patriarchate. If Turkish laws, demographics and attitudes aren't changed, Bartholomew could ultimately be the last Patriarch of Constantinople.

At every turn, this piece surprised me. Most of all, I did not expect it to handle the nasty legal details in any depth, especially a history of government-sanctioned violence against the historic Orthodox community. I also wondered if the CNN team would deal with the most emotional detail of all -- the long-shuttered seminary at Halki.

For more than a century, the Halki seminary educated future Greek Orthodox bishops, theologians and patriarchs, until Turkey's highest court ordered it closed in 1971. Since then, it's remained empty, worrying former students like theologian Satirios Varnalidis.

"We want to reopen this school so that we can provide new priests to the Ecumenical Patriarchate," Varnalidis said. "Otherwise, in a little while our community just won't have any more priests."

For years, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has talked of reopening the school.

Talks continue and continue and continue and continue and continue, world without end. Amen.

However, the Halki angle is one place where the story falls short. Yes, without the seminary the Orthodox have no new priests. That is obviously important. Yet without the seminary's monastic community, the Orthodox have no monks and, thus, no bishops, since Eastern Orthodoxy follows the ancient tradition of electing only celibate monks and priests as bishops. And if there are no Orthodox bishops who are from Turkey and trained in Turkey, this means that -- according to Turkish law -- there can be no new ecumenical patriarch, since this office must be held by a Turkish citizen.

That's a major detail, one of the only missing details in a fine report that demonstrates that fine print reporting can be done by a wide variety of news organizations.

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