ISTANBUL, Turkey — When Apostolos Daniilides, an ethnic Greek, decided to become an Orthodox priest 26 years ago, he set off for the only Christian theological university in Muslim Turkey.
Perched on a pine-forested hill on a tiny island off the coast of Istanbul, the Halki Theological University has trained generations of Orthodox clergy and every ecumenical Orthodox patriarch who has led the world's 270 million Orthodox Christians.
But Daniilides' long-cherished dream ended days after his arrival when Turkish authorities ordered the university closed.
It has never reopened. With no elite academy to train its younger ranks, the Orthodox patriarchate, founded in Istanbul nearly 1,700 years ago, is facing one of the biggest challenges to its survival since the Crusaders briefly occupied the city in 1204 and sent the patriarch into exile.
"We are rapidly losing blood," the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I, said in an interview.
The patriarch, the Orthodox equivalent of the pope, will meet President Clinton during a visit to the United States this month and is expected to urge high-level pressure on Turkey to allow Halki to reopen.
Keeping Halki closed is one of several ways in which Turkish authorities limit the influence of the patriarchate, which they suspect is plotting to create an independent, Vatican-style state in the heart of Istanbul.
Halki was shut in 1971 under a military government decree forcing all private universities to merge with corresponding state schools. Private universities were later allowed to reopen but under state supervision, which the church rejects.
"For 26 years we have been trying to explain the uniqueness of our case, to say that [reopening Halki] is indispensable to the future of the patriarchate," said Bartholomew, 57.
He said he has told Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz that "we are Turkish citizens like you but of another faith, with the same rights under the constitution. . . . Yet we are deprived of the right to educate our religious people."
The church also objects to authorities' insistence that the patriarch and all 12 members of his holy synod be drawn from Turkey's ethnic Greek minority, which has been reduced in this century by expulsions and migrations from 150,000 to 5,000. Church officials say there are only 19 bishops remaining who have Turkish citizenship. Many are in their late 70s or early 80s.
Unwilling to admit defeat in its campaign to reopen Halki, the church has not moved to create another elite school. But in recent years it has paid for scores of aspiring clerics to study at the theological department of the University of Salonica in Greece, hoping that they would return to serve the patriarchate. Only a few have done so.
One was Daniilides, now an abbot and entrusted with maintaining the Halki premises. During a tour of the deserted complex, which includes a monastery, a small chapel and a richly stocked library, he insisted that "only the Halki university can perpetuate the patriarchate's ecumenical identity."
"At Halki we were taught the spirit of tolerance that embraces all nations and all faiths . . . the spirit which defines our patriarchate," he said.
Pro-Western Turks say reopening the school would help Turkey's campaign for membership in the European Union.
But any U.S. pressure to reopen Halki would put Turkey's government in an awkward position as it continues to shut down religious schools in a military-inspired crackdown on radical Islam. "The Islamists will say you are opening infidel schools while you are banning ours," a senior Turkish official said. "The government simply can't afford that kind of criticism now."