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AHI Sends Letter to U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
April 3, 2008—No. 22 (202) 785-8430

AHI Sends Letter to U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

WASHINGTON, DC—On April 2, 2008 AHI sent a letter to Mr. Michael Cromartie, Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom regarding the 2008 International Religious Freedom Report.

In it, there are examples citing the little progress that has been made in the area of religious freedom in Turkey, including injustices made against the religious minorities in Turkey, the status of the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Halki Patriarchial School in Turkey, and the destruction of the symbols of religious heritage in the Republic of Cyprus.

The text of the letter is attached below.


April 2, 2008

Mr. Michael Cromartie 
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 
800 North Capitol Street, NW 
Suite 790 
Washington, DC 20002

Dear Mr. Cromartie:

On behalf of our nationwide membership, I write to you at this time in order to bring to your attention a number of items for consideration as the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) prepares the 2008 International Religious Freedom Report.

Specifically, we bring to light that there has been very little progress made in the area of religious freedom in Turkey since the Commission’s 2007 Annual Report and we encourage you to update cases of extremism and suppression of religious freedom.

In 2007, religious minorities faced hurdles and increased intolerance that included:

  • the brutal murder of three Christians in Malatya on April 18, 2007;
  • the murder of Hrant Dink, an Armenian Christian, by an extremist youth in January 2007;
  • Arat Dink, son of Hrant Dink, being sentenced to one year “conditional” jail for “desecrating Turkishness.” Arat received threats and ultimately fled Turkey in November 2007;
  • an Italian Catholic priest, Adriano Franchini, was stabbed in the stomach by an extremist youth in December 2007; and
  • the new Turkish Foundation law of 2008 does nothing to change the legal position of non-Muslim religious community. It only makes life slightly easier for the community foundations allowed to some of Turkey's non-Muslim communities, which the Turkish Republic has always understood in ethnic/religious terms.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate

The Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul's Fener District—the seat of the most senior cleric in the Orthodox world—has no legal status and does not own its own headquarters. A community foundation owns the land and the older buildings—including the Patriarchal Church of St George. But the legal status of the new patriarchal offices—which the Turkish authorities allowed to be rebuilt only in the late 1980s, nearly fifty years after they were burnt down—has never been clarified. The building is not listed on the land register.

The Turkish government has tolerated assaults against its Greek Orthodox Christian religious minority, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and continues the illegal closure of the Greek Orthodox Halki Patriarchal School of Theology in Istanbul. These actions violate U.S. principles on freedom of religion. The U.S. law expressed in Section 2804 of the Fiscal Year 1999 Appropriations Bill, calls for the Turkish government to safeguard the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its personnel, and its property, and to reopen the Halki Patriarchal School of Theology.

His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in North America led a panel discussion at the U.S. Helsinki Commission on March 16, 2005 which presented a clear picture of how religious human rights violations by the Turkish government have been working to exterminate the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Christian community in that country. The panel briefing “highlighted Turkey’s systemic efforts to undermine the Orthodox Church, violating numerous international treaties to which it has agreed.”

Archbishop Demetrios and Dr. Anthony Limberakis detailed the severe restrictions on property ownership which have allowed the government to confiscate nearly 7,000 properties from the Ecumenical Patriarchate since 1936. Behind them stood placard-size photos of one of the seized properties, an orphanage on Buyukada island which once housed hundreds of homeless children.

As you know, under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, (22 U.S.C.A. § 6441, 6445) (“IRFA”), the President is obligated to oppose violations of religious freedom in any country whose government “engages in or tolerates violations of religious freedom and promote the right to religious freedom in that country.” The Act further obligates the President to take one or more of 15 enumerated actions with respect to any such country.

Former U.S. Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Congressman Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) stated: “The concern of this Commission is the protection of religious rights and freedoms. Turkey’s treatment of the Ecumenical Patriarchate violates its obligations under international human rights law.”

Mr. Smith blamed Turkey for systemically attempting to prevent the activities of the Patriarchate by disallowing the opening of the Halki Theological School forcibly closed in 1971, destroying churches by creating hurdles preventing their repair, denying the Patriarchate the opportunity to purchase and or sell property and not recognizing the Patriarchate’s ”Ecumenical” status, in effect, denying its universal status.

Turkey should be proud to have this historical religious institution on its soil and to allow it to flourish. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is a Turkish citizen who served in the Turkish Uniform Services. The Ecumenical Patriarch lives a pious life of honesty and humility. He performs his work diligently and conducts beautiful customs and traditions.

The Commission can apply pressure on Turkey by highlighting in its report the need for Turkey to reform immediately its official practices and bring them into line with democratic and civilized norms. We also urge the Commission to call on Turkey to:

  • live up to its obligations under the Treaty of Lausanne, which include allowing the free exercise of religion by Turkey’s ethnic Greek minority;
  • acknowledge His All Holiness Bartholomew I as the 270th Ecumenical Patriarch and spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians (including over five million in the U.S.) and accord him and the Patriarchate all due protections;
  • call for the immediate reopening of the Halki Patriarchal School of Theology (closed since 1971); and
  • permit people to work at the Patriarchate without being a Turkish citizen.

Ongoing Destruction of the Republic of Cyprus’ Religious Heritage

Since the 1974 illegal invasion and continuing occupation of the northern area of Cyprus by Turkey, many symbols of Cyprus’s religious heritage have been destroyed, looted or vandalized, and many have been stolen for sale abroad.

The Turkish policy of pillage, destruction and disrespect for Cyprus’ religious heritage in the occupied are has led to incalculable historical loss, which includes:

  • 520 Greek Orthodox churches and chapels, and 17 monasteries in the occupied area have been pillaged, vandalized or destroyed. There are more than 15,000 ecclesiastical items from these sites for which there is no accounting.

Churches, chapels and monasteries throughout the occupied area have been exploited, including:

  • 133 have been converted to military facilities, stables and night clubs;
  • 78 have been converted to mosques;
  • 28 are used for purely military facilities;
  • 13 are used as medical storage facilities;
  • 13 are used as stockyards or hay barns;
  • Agia Anastasia church in occupied Lapithos was converted into a hotel and casino;
  • Panagia Chrysotrimithiotissa church (dating back to the Middle Byzantine Period) in occupied Trimithi was converted into a school;
  • Sourp Magar Armenian monastery, which was founded in the Medieval period, was converted into a cafeteria; and
  • A church dating from the 15th century and located in the District of Ammochostos was completely destroyed.

Additionally, there is an endless list of continued Turkish suppression of religious minorities that need to be updated in the upcoming U.S. Commission 2008 International Religious Freedom Annual Report

In conclusion, we recommend that you urge in your report to have the President designate Turkey as a country of particular concern under IRFA for severely violating religious freedom and to impose appropriate sanctions. Failing to do so makes the U.S. complicit in Turkey’s insidious efforts to extinguish its Orthodox Greek minority and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is a mathematical certainty if events continue to proceed unimpeded.

I thank you for your consideration of these facts.


Nick Larigakis

cc: USCIRF Commissioners 
Patricia Carley, Acting Deputy Director for Policy, USCIRF 
David J. Kramer, Assistant Secretary of State, Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

John Hanford, Ambassador-at-Large, Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom


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