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Turkey’s False Promises on Halki

By on July 12, 2019
Endy Zemenides

by Endy Zemenides

During a recent press conference on international religious freedom, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the “immediate reopening” of the Halki Seminary, a seminary Turkey ordered closed in 1971.

Some may consider this call in the context of the connection to Halki of recently enthroned Archbishop Elpidophoros and the late June flourish of Congressional attention to religious freedom in Turkey and believe that some movement on Halki may come soon.  That, however, would be a bad bet.
As HALC’s Managing Director Georgia Logothetis has previously detailed in “Turkey’s trail of broken promises on reopening Halki Seminary”, Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey has almost masterfully slow played the opening of Halki.  His governments have constantly raised the prospect of opening the seminary and have even promised the US government to do so.  All those promises are inevitably walked back.

Roughly one year into Erdogan becoming Prime Minister, his Education Minister – while at a ceremony with the Greek Education Minister – declared that he didn’t see any reason why Halki couldn’t be opened.

Hope again arose in 2009, when President Obama made his first state visit to Turkey, addressed the Grand National Assembly and said: “Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond.”

Obama followed up that speech with a direct meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch while in Turkey, who then was invited to Washington, DC later that year.  On that trip, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton hosted head of state level dinner for His All Holiness, who also met with the President, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  It may be hard to believe it now, but in 2009 Washington was in the midst of establishing a special relationship with Turkey and it made reopening Halki one of its asks.

Over the next few years, President Obama and Vice President Biden kept raising Halki with Erdogan.  Then on March 25, 2012, after a meeting on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in South Korea, President Obama – in the very presence of Erdogan – congratulated the Prime Minister for protecting religious minorities (!) and announced “I am pleased to hear of his decision to reopen the Halki Seminary.”

Erdogan spoke next, and of course failed to elaborate on the Halki reference.  Back in Turkey, it took less than one day to walk back this “commitment” from Erdogan to Obama.

The roller coaster of raised expectations turned into false promises has persisted for seven more years.  Turkey tried to make the issue a reciprocal one – tying it to the opening of a mosque in Athens and changes in how muftis are appointed in Greece.  The US continued pressing on the issue – with Vice President Biden, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry all visiting Halki,  The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has identified the continued status of Halki as part of the reason it keeps Turkey on the list of worst religious freedom violators of the world.

And now the Trump Administration has called for the reopening of Halki.

It has been over 2600 days since Erdogan made his false promise to Obama on opening Halki.  This is a lie that he has never been held to account to, something that former President Obama (who was lied to) and the State Department (which has applauded/encouraged the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s rift with the Russian Orthodox Church) should be particularly ashamed of.

The Greek Orthodox Seminary in Halki, Turkey

The Greek Orthodox Seminary in Halki, Turkey

This Administration, however, has shown an alternative way forward.  When Erdogan attempted to renege on his deal with President Trump over the release of Pastor Brunson, the Trump Administration imposed Global Magnitsky Act sanctions on two Turkish Ministers, severely affecting the Turkish economy despite the limited scope of the sanctions.  Given that such sanctions allow the U.S. government to target individuals, companies or other entities involved in corruption or human-rights abuses anywhere in the world and that both USCIRF and the State Department continue to identify the closure of Halki as a violation of religious freedom, Magnitsky sanctions should be applicable here.

And lest the Administration needs reminding, this is as much an American matter as an international one.  The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America – with its 560 parishes and over one million adherents across the US – is an Eparchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  Thus, the Ecumenical Patriarch is the ultimate spiritual AND administrative head of a significant American community.  That successive administrations – and especially this one, with its strident commitment to the global protection of Christianity – takes no concrete action against a continuing religious freedom violation that not only offends American values, but the direct interests of so many American citizens – is beyond sad.

This is why the ante has to be raised.  Halki is no longer enough.  We’ve tolerated more than enough: two decades of false promises (the diplomatic way of saying “lies), attempts to make a matter of international religious freedom into a bilateral affair between Greece and Turkey, and watching Turkey move the goalposts again and again even as Greece made changes to the way muftis are selected and is set to open a mosque in Athens this coming September.

Halki was supposed to be the first step towards full religious freedom.  Erdogan has slow played this issue to the point that he will claim he can do nothing more than open Halki.  He should not be given the chance.  It is time for the initial demand to be increased: Turkey should have no say on who the Ecumenical Patriarch is.

About Endy Zemenides

Endy Zemenides is the Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), a national advocacy organization for the Greek American community. To learn more about HALC, visit www.hellenicleaders.com