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Coal for Christmas
This past April, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its Annual Report documenting developments during 2020. Among its many recommendations to the State Department, USCIRF pushed for Turkey to be placed on the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL) based on the Erdogan government’s perpetration or toleration of severe violations of religious rights. USCIRF cited the conversion of Hagia Sophia and planned conversion of the Chora Museum as evidence of “a troubling trajectory” for religious freedoms in Turkey. It also recommended that the US government “Raise in all meetings with Turkish government officials and press at the highest levels for the reopening of the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary and for full compliance with European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) rulings on freedom of religion or belief.”
The USCIRF report and the commission’s recommendations were part of a positive policy backdrop for His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s trip to the United States this past fall. Combined with early moves by the Biden Administration – including making recognition of the Armenian Genocide the official policy of the United States, consistent criticism of Turkey by the State Department spokesperson – it was reasonable to expect that the latest Patriarchal visit to Washington, D.C. would result in a strong U.S. stance on behalf of the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church in Turkey.
Alas, anyone who hoped for such a strong stance would have been disappointed. His All Holiness was certainly welcomed with the honor befitting his status and his record as a world leader – a meeting with President Biden in the Oval Office, a meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a meeting with several Congressional leaders. And while the images and the tweets of appreciation were all impressive, the chance for progress on the religious freedom front passed by with a whimper.
Many will protest, claiming that we don’t know what was said behind closed doors or off the record. Fair enough, but here is what we DO know:
(1) After His All Holiness left Washington, but while he was still in the United States, the Biden Administration leaked the list of invitees to its much ballyhooed “Summit for Democracy”. Turkey failed to make the cut.
There was an opportunity here to at least have an Administration official go on background/off the record with White House or State Department correspondents and let it be known that Turkey’s treatment of the Ecumenical Patriarch was one of the reasons Turkey was off the list. This didn’t happen.
(2) Shortly after His All Holiness returned to the Phanar, the State Department made its designation of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) and Special Watch List Countries (SWL). Turkey was not included under either designation, despite the recommendation of USCIRF.
For any Orthodox Christian in America, the Biden Administration’s refusal to heed USCIRF’s well documented recommendation is an indisputable failure to uphold its professed commitment to human rights.
Equally troubling was the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s failure to use the opportunity afforded it by USCIRF and deliver a victory on its professed top priority – the religious freedom of the Mother Church. USCIRF found the State Department’s failure to designate Turkey a SWL so outrageous that it issued a Turkey country update on December 3, declaring that “In 2021, religious freedom conditions in Turkey have remained poor…Little effort has been made to address key religious freedom issues, including [r]e-opening the Theological School of Halki…” Yet from neither official nor unofficial GOA channels did we witness any public pushback against the State Department’s egregious ignoring of USCIRF on Turkey.
There will be those that insist that much is achieved behind closed doors and that Erdogan does not respond well to public pressure. But as the case of Pastor Brunson proved, only substantial public pressure works when it comes to Turkey.
On November 16, President Biden sent Archbishop Elpidophoros a letter, thanking him for sharing his “perspective on combating climate change and ending the COVID-19 pandemic.” This was a tone-deaf letter, with nary a mention of the challenges faced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This was the diplomatic equivalent of coal for Christmas.
After Turkevi-gate, maybe we can’t expect more from the Archbishop than to celebrate even this lackluster letter for its public relations value, but Orthodox Christians of America MUST demand that the Biden Administration act on the recommendations of USCIRF. If not, the very existence of a Patriarchate devoted to climate change, ending COVID or a “just and more peaceful world” is in doubt.