American Hellenic Institute Statement on
60 Minutes Interview of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
December 23, 2009
The American Hellenic Institute (AHI) congratulates the news magazine show 60 Minutes for producing the recently aired segment on the plight of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Patriarchate in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s very satisfying and encouraging, to finally see a main stream American news program bring much needed public awareness regarding the lack of religious freedom in Turkey and specifically to the Orthodox Christian community there.
We also congratulate His All Holiness for having the courage to forcefully speak out regarding the intolerable suffering that he and this 17 century old Christian institution faces today in modern day Turkey, country that aspires to join the European Union.
It is also important to note the October 14, 2009, Commission of the European Communities “Turkey 2009 Progress Report” regarding Turkey’s progress for accession into the European Union. This report also supports His All Holiness’ comments.
The Turkish government has tolerated assaults against the remaining approximately 3,000 Greek Orthodox Christian religious minority and the Ecumenical Patriarchate; continues the illegal closure of the Greek Orthodox Halki Patriarchal School of Theology and refuses to return 7,000 church properties which were illegally seized.
The “Turkey 2009 Progress Report” states:
“Non-Muslim communities-as organized structures of religious groups-still face problems due to lack of legal personality. Restrictions on the training of clergy remain…The Halki Greek Orthodox seminary remains closed, although its re-opening was widely debated over the reporting period…”
The Ecumenical Patriarch is not free to use the ecclesiastical title ‘Ecumenical’ on all occasions. In June 2007 the Court of Cassation ruled that persons who participate and are elected in religious elections held in the Patriarchate should be Turkish citizens and be employed in Turkey at the time of the elections. However, Turkish and foreign nationals should be treated equally as regards their ability to exercise their right to freedom of religion by participating in the life of organized religious communities in accordance with the ECHR and case law of the ECtHR..
Attacks against minority religions still occur.”
Following the CBS 60 Minutes report, His All Holiness came under attack from the government in Turkey. Specifically Turkish Foreign Minister Ahment Davutoglou in referring to the Patriarch’s comments that he feels “crucified” stated that he wished those remarks had been an “undesirable slip of the tongue.”
The reaction of Mr. Davutoglou and others in Turkey help to underscore the intolerant attitude by the Turkish Government towards His All Holiness and the general lack of respect for religious freedom and human rights in Turkey.
The AHI has long advocated that our government needs to take a more active approach by ratcheting up the pressure on Turkey in order to safeguard the protection and security of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
By receiving His All Holiness Bartholomew I at the White House on November 3, 2009, President Obama, underscored the important stature and recognition His All Holiness deserves as a well-respected and admired world religious leader.
This was further illustrated when in his speech before the Turkish Assembly on April 6, 2009, he 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 the Halki Seminary will send such an 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.”
And of course, in his October 2008 campaign statement, he said:
“[I 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 I sent] Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a personal letter on the same matter. [Calling 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.”
However, as pointed out by this statement, there are a number of serious issues facing the Ecumenical Patriarchate, not just Halki.
Turkey’s actions violate U.S. principles on freedom of religion and U.S. law as expressed in Section 2804 of the Omnibus Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act of 1998 (PL 105-277). The law states that the “United States should use its influence with the Government of Turkey to suggest that the Government of Turkey:
- 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; and
- reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Halki Patriarchal School of Theology.”
We condemn Turkey’s toleration of assaults against its Greek Orthodox Christian minority, the limited progress so far on the protection of the human and minority rights of the non-Muslim communities in Turkey, its continuing illegal closure of the Greek Orthodox Halki Patriarchal School of Theology and its illegal seizure of property of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox Christian minority of Istanbul, Imbros and Tenedos.
Under the International Religious Freedom Act (IFRA) of 1998, the President of the United States 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.
We call on President Obama, to impress upon the Turkish government that the U.S.:
- will not tolerate such violations from an ally and calls on Turkey to immediately implement and enforce strictly the guarantees of religious freedom and human and minority rights set forth in the Treaty of Lausanne, the UN Charter, other international agreements, and U.S. laws;
- expects that the Ecumenical Patriarchate will be safeguarded and that Turkey will recognize the legal personality of the Ecumenical Patriarchate;
- calls for the immediate reopening of the Halki School of Theology and the lifting of restrictions to the elections of the Patriarch;
- calls for the immediate return of the nearly 7,000 properties which were illegally confiscated from the Ecumenical Patriarchate by the Turkish government since 1936; and
- calls for the respect for human and minority rights in Turkey
- is prepared to implement provisions of the IRFA if necessary if these actions are not implemented by Turkey.
The AHI is very concerned regarding the immediate safety and security of the Ecumenical Patriarch following his interview in view of the strong comments by the Turkish government and certain Turkish media outlets. It is imperative the United States try to prevent any incidents regarding the Ecumenical Patriarch from occurring. This is a serious matter that needs to be addressed immediately before an escalation of hostile actions occur. Clearly it is in the best interests of the United States to see that hostile actions do not happen.
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.
The AHI cannot stress enough the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarch and his role as spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world including 5 million in the United States.
Finally, the AHI urges the President to 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 Christian minority and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is a mathematical certainty if events continue to proceed unimpeded.
The United States is a major supporter of Turkey including support for entry into the European Union. A core principal of the EU and the founding of our own country is religious freedom. As we continue to witness, in Turkey this simply does not exist yet.
The American Hellenic Institute is a nonprofit public policy organization that works to strengthen relations between the United States and Greece and Cyprus, and also within the American Hellenic community.