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Op-Ed: The Patriarch Goes to Washington
November 16 2009—No. 80
(202) 785-8430

Op-Ed: The Patriarch Goes to Washington

WASHINGTON, DC—The following Op-Ed by AHI Executive Director Nick Larigakis was published in The Hellenic Voice 11-11-09, The National Herald 11-07-09, and theGreek News 11-09-09.

The Patriarch Goes to Washington

by Nick Larigakis

November 3, 2009

As I write this, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, including 5 million in the United States, is beginning a full week’s visit to our nation’s capital. While in Washington, His All Holiness will be meeting with the leading political leaders of our country. This includes, President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Harry Reid, and others.

It’s interesting to also note that the Turkey’s Ambassador to Washington is also hosting a dinner in honor of His All Holiness at the Turkish Embassy. Isn’t this ironic, since Turkey only considers His All Holiness to be a Parish priest!  Since when does the Turkish Ambassador roll out the red carpet honors for a parish priest?  But of course, they wish to seize upon this historic visit and leverage whatever publicity they can from his visit. For the record, the invitation sent read in honor of the “Greek Orthodox Patriarch.”

Washington is the final stop of the Patriarch’s historic 20 day visit to the United States.

The Patriarch has gained international recognition for being a leading worldwide voice on the environment, thus he has been referred to as the “Green” Patriarch. And much of his trip to the U.S. centered on his ongoing activism regarding this issue.

However, as we know, the Patriarch and the institution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are faced with continuous hardship and duress at the hands of the Turkish government. This, of course, was another message, that the Ecumenical Patriarch has come to make U.S. policy makers aware of. And they are.

In this year alone, there have been a number of reports issued by esteem government and non-government agencies which highlight the plight and lack of religious freedom in Turkey and specifically present examples how the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the tiny Orthodox Christian community in Turkey gets mistreated. These include Amnesty International, the U.S. State Department’s two reports, titled “Human Rights Report on Turkey” and “International Religious Freedom Report 2009” on Turkey, and The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Annual Report 2009.

Amnesty finds that Turkey has systematically targeted the Greek Orthodox Christian community through a series of policies, resulting in killings, destruction of private properties, violation of religious sites and expropriation of income-generating properties.  It finds that survival of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox Christian community in Turkey is at risk.

The United States Commission for the first time this year placed Turkey on its “Watch List” calling on Turkey to enact a number of measures against the Ecumenical Patriarchate including recognizing the Ecumenical status of the Patriarch and calling for the Halki Seminary to reopen under the control of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The State Department Human Rights Report said that non-Muslim religious groups in Turkey “continued to face restrictions on practicing their religion openly, owning property and training leaders.” It too noted that the Turkish government did not recognize the Ecumenical status of the Patriarch and that Halki seminary was closed.

The recent State Department Religious report identifies many of the same issues that were highlighted by the others. In addition, it stated that “In the first half of 2009, two Greek Orthodox cemeteries in Istanbul and one in Izmir suffered extensive damage due to vandalism.”

Further, we all are aware of the desecration of 90 tombs at the Balouki historical Orthodox cemetery in the morning hours of September 2, 2009.

And finally, President Barack Obama in his historic speech at the Turkish Parliament on April 6, 2009 stated:

“Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthen the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such and important signal inside Turkey and beyond. An enduring commitment to the rule of law is the only way to achieve the security that comes from justice for all people.”

So what is our government doing to help ease the longtime suffering of this Holy See?  What assistance will President Obama be prepared to offer His All Holiness this week along with his other senior policy advisors in his administration who will be meeting with His All Holiness? We don’t know. But because the reports indicate that very little progress has been forthcoming in Turkey in 2009 to safeguard the Ecumenical Patriarchate, President Obama should remember his pre-campaign statement when he said:

“[He was] one of 73 Senators who signed a letter to President Bush in 2006 urging him to press Turkey to restore the full rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Christian Church in Istanbul. [And he had sent] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a personal letter on the same matter. [He  called on] Turkey to respect the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s rights and freedoms, including its property rights. Turkey should allow the reopening of the Patriarchate’s school of theology on Halki Island and guarantee the right to train clergy of all nationalities, not just Turkish nationals.”

Call on Turkey to:

  • recognize the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its nonpolitical religious mission;
  • ensure the continued maintenance of the institution’s physical security needs, as provided for under Turkish and international law, including the Treaty of Lausanne, the 1968 Protocol, the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and the Charter of Paris;
  • provide for the proper protection and safety of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Patriarchate personnel;
  • reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Halki Patriarchal School of Theology;” and
  • return 7,000 plus church properties illegally taken.

Failure by Turkey to comply violates 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.

Section 2804 stems from H.Con.Res. 50 that the American Hellenic Institute initiated and Congressman Michael Bilirakis introduced.

Further, under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, (22 U.S.C.A. § 6441, 6445) (“IRFA”), the President must 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.

Even as elements in Turkish society seek to eliminate the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Turkey should be proud to have this historical religious institution on its soil. Turkey should understand that a flourishing Ecumenical Patriarchate and Greek Orthodox minority are in the best interests of Turkey.

And hopefully the next time that the Patriarch visits Washington, DC, the invitation from the Turkish Ambassador will read in honor of “His All Holiness Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch.”

Nick Larigakis
Executive Director
American Hellenic Institute


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