AHI Sends Letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Regarding the Mistreatment of American Citizens by Turkish Officials During the Meeting of Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew

WASHINGTON, DC—On December 18, 2006, AHI Executive Nick Larigakis sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice regarding the mistreatment of American citizens by Turkish officials during the meeting of Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in late November.  Mr. Larigakis was in Istanbul as part of the Archon pilgrimage on the occasion of the historic visit between Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew.  The text of the letter follows:

December 18, 2006

The Honorable Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State
2201 C Street, N.W.
Department of State
Washington, D.C.   20520

        Re:  Mistreatment of American citizens by Turkish officials

Dear Madame Secretary:

I write to make you aware of the recent mistreatment, that I had the opportunity to witness first hand, of approximately 150 Americans at the hands of Turkish officials.  The occasion was the late-November pilgrimage to Istanbul by American Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and their families and friends to witness the historic meeting of Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew I at the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  The mistreatment consisted of harassment and unnecessary delays in allowing us to enter and exit the scheduled ceremonies and liturgies conducted in honor of the Pope’s visit.

The mistreatment began on the evening of November 29, 2006, when we attended the welcome ceremony and Doxology of Peace in the Pope’s honor at the Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint George.  The organizers of our group had arranged for our buses to drop us off almost three hours early to clear security and take early places inside for what was expected to be a very full cathedral.  Because it was only a short walk from the bus drop-off point to the cathedral entrance, and because we expected to be inside quickly and then for several hours during the liturgy, we were advised to dispense with overcoats.

What we did not expect was that it would take the Turkish security officials nearly half an hour just to set up their security check-point and another hour and a half to clear us through.  These delays took place in the dark while our group, many of which were elderly, stood outside in bitter cold wind and rain sprinkles.  Our organizers had provided us with special security badges, which the Turkish officials refused to recognize because they bore the word “Ecumenical” in reference to the Patriarchate.  They demanded instead that we surrender our passports in return for Turkish security badges.  Ironically, once inside the cathedral we found it to be not as crowded as we expected.  We later learned this was because Turkish officials had prevented the local Orthodox faithful from attending the services being held in their own church.

On leaving the Doxology, the harassment continued.  Retrieving our passports involved surrendering our Turkish security badges, a nearly hour-long process again conducted outside in the cold.  We were then informed that, for security reasons, we would have to walk about two miles to the buses that would take us to the dinner we hosted for U.S. Ambassador Ross Wilson.  These were the very same buses that earlier had dropped us off en masse a few steps from the cathedral.  Needless to say, this was a difficult walk in the weather conditions then prevailing, especially for those of our group who were using canes and crutches.  Furthermore, we had no escort through the local streets and there was no police presence for the last mile or so.  At times we were jeered.  The situation was tense, and we felt that an ugly incident could easily have developed.

Upon arriving at the dinner, I alerted both Ambassador Wilson and Consul General Deborah Jones to what had happened.  I pressed Ms. Jones to take action so that such intimidation tactics would not be repeated the following morning when our group would return to the cathedral to attend the Divine Liturgy.

  But repeated they were.  Once again the Turkish officials refused to accept our security badges and insisted that we surrender our U.S. passports in exchange for Turkish security badges.  This time we entered the cathedral quickly, but the harassment occurred when we exited the cathedral.  It developed that the Turkish officials had not linked the collection of our passports to the numbers on the Turkish security badges.  Thus, there was no orderly way to return our passports.  The officials merely shucked the passports back to our tour guides, who were left to sort them out by calling names through the crowd in another lengthy ordeal.

I later learned that no similar security procedures were in place at Istanbul’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, where the Pope conducted mass on December 1.  I was told that persons simply showed their invitations and were admitted.

During our visit I heard accounts of other instances of official harassment.  I was told disturbing accounts of officials trying to censor the press and shut down the Patriarchate press office, which some of the U.S. Archons were assisting.  And I do not believe it was merely a coincidence that on numerous occasions during our week’s stay in Istanbul the CNN and BBC stations at our hotel headquarters (the Ritz Carlton Istanbul) were blacked out.

During this pilgrimage I had the opportunity to hear speeches made by our US. Ambassador to Turkey, Ross Wilson and Consul General, Deborah Jones.

During our visit to the illegally closed Patriarchal Theological School of Halki, Ms. Jones made some fine comments regarding the U.S. support for the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Halki School.  She said:  “…the Patriarchate is deeply rooted in the city of Istanbul…we [the U.S.] make it a point to tell the Turks regarding their commitment to religious freedom…we  discuss [with the Turks] our support for the reopening of the seminary…our ultimate goal is for the Church to survive and [for the Turks] to have respect for all other human rights…we have stressed [to Turkish officials] in our regular dialogue the need for tolerance and respect of equality for citizens under the law”

On the occasion of the Archon farewell banquet in honor of His All Holiness Bartholomew on December 1, 2006, Ambassador Wilson did make some fine comments regarding the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  He stated, “…the continuing presence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is critical to Turkey’s past…we [the U.S.] strongly support the re-opening of the Halki Seminary (he received a standing ovation for this comment)…return of Church properties…support the title of ‘Ecumenical’…”

The comments made above are welcome and appreciated; however, they will continue to resound in hollow echoes if our government does not ratchet up the pressure on the government of Turkey to fulfill these obligations under its treaties responsibility and international law. 

Madame Secretary, I bring these events to your attention as evidence that Turkey’s historic pattern of official antipathy toward ethnic Greeks extends even to American citizens.  What the American Archons experienced merely mirrors the official provocations that Turkey’s ethnic Greeks have dealt with for generations. 

It is in the best interest of the United States to prevent further incidents regarding the Ecumenical Patriarch.  This is a serious matter that needs to be addressed immediately before an escalation of future attempts are made whereby this crisis can lead to major political unrest.  Clearly it is in the best interests of the United States to see that this does 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.  He performs his work diligently and conducts beautiful customs and traditions.

I cannot stress enough the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarch and his role as  spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians in the overall goals of the United States to establish peaceful relations with and among the many important nations of the world that have substantial Orthodox Christian populations.

Our experience in Istanbul confirms why the U.S. must apply greater pressure on Turkey to reform its official practices and bring them into line with democratic and civilized norms.  Until this happens the U.S. should withhold active support for Turkey’s entry into the EU and should insist that Turkey:

      • 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.

The U.S. is not without tools for applying the necessary pressure.  The most potent one is the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (22 U.S.C.A. § 6441, 6445) (“IRFA”).  We urge 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 minority and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is a mathematical certainty if events continue to proceed unimpeded.  As we have seen, such efforts collaterally affect U.S. citizens.

The United States is a major supporter of Turkey’s entry into the European Union.  A core principal of the EU and the founding of our own country is Religious Freedom.  In Turkey this simply does not exist.  All of us who attended this historic pilgrimage a few weeks ago can attest to that first hand.


                                                        Respectfully yours,

                                                                Nick Larigakis
                                                                Executive Director


cc:     Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns
        Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Daniel Fried
        Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Matthew Bryza
        Director of Southern European Affairs Douglas Silliman
        U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Ross Wilson
        U.S. Consul General to Istanbul Deborah Jones
        Turkey Desk Officer Paul Malik