Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of roughly 300 million Orthodox Christians, is due to meet with President Joe Biden at the White House on Oct. 23 amid growing congressional scrutiny of religious freedom for minority groups in Turkey, Al-Monitor reported on Sept. 16.
Sources speaking on condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor that the patriarch, a Turkish citizen, would be having breakfast with Turkey’s new ambassador to Washington, Murat Mercan, during his visit to Washington.
Since taking office, Biden has made a deliberate show of keeping President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at arm’s length. Although Turkey is a NATO ally, Biden called Erdoğan for the first time on April 23 to give him advance warning that he would be using the term “genocide” in the White House’s annual message to mark the April 24 anniversary of the mass slaughter of the Armenians in 1915.
The pair did eventually meet on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels in June, and the Biden administration has toned down its earlier critiques of Erdoğan.
Ankara's purchase of the S-400s, however, continues to strain ties with the U.S. and NATO allies over concerns that the systems are not compatible with the alliance's defenses and may threaten the U.S. F-35 fighter jets. Turkey, which was expelled from the jet program over the Russian systems, rejects the concerns.
Erdoğan in June said that he had told Biden at their first meeting that Turkey would not change its stance on its S-400s.
In response, a senior U.S. diplomat in July said that Biden is committed to maintaining sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for buying the systems and would impose further sanctions if Ankara bought additional major arms systems from Moscow.
Biden is known to have a soft spot for the patriarch, whom he visited at the patriarchal seat in Istanbul in 2011 when he was vice president. The men share a common concern for the environment. On Sept. 7, Bartholomew I penned a joint appeal with Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby outlining the mounting perils posed by climate change.
The Ecumenical Patriarch will undoubtedly press Biden for his support over the continued ban on the Greek Orthodox community to train clergy at the Halki Seminary on Heybeli Ada, one of the nine Princes' Islands off the coast of Istanbul. The seminary was built under the Ottomans in 1844 and shuttered in 1971 by Turkish authorities who have long regarded non-Muslim minorities with deep suspicion.
Conspiracy theories abound over the patriarch’s supposed plans to establish a “second Vatican” in the heart of Istanbul. Nestled in a narrow street in Phanar near the Golden Horn, the Patriarchate has been the target of ultra-nationalist vigilante attacks. In 2013, Turkish police unveiled a plot to assassinate Bartholomew on May 29, the anniversary of the Ottoman Conquest of Istanbul.
In July 2020, Turkey’s dwindling population of ethnic Greeks — roughly 2,500 remain and most are elderly — suffered a deep emotional blow when Erdoğan formally inaugurated their beloved Haghia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as a full-service mosque.
Washington’s support is deemed critical by Patriarchate officials.
'Impressive international network of contacts'
Bruce Clark, a writer on Greek affairs, is the author of “Twice a Stranger,” a wrenching account of the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923.
“While loyal to Turkish authority, the Patriarchate enjoys an impressive international network of contacts, facilitated by the Greek diaspora. Those contacts helped to main open channels with the White House. For the Greek-Americans, the welfare of the Patriarchate (and the restoration of its right to train clergy, suspended in 1971) is an abiding preoccupation. The visit will be a chance to raise those concerns," Clark told Al-Monitor.
The dependency cuts both ways. With an eye, some say, on Greek American votes, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to Bartholomew I in Istanbul last November without bothering to see his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.
Perhaps with the patriarch’s likely complaints in mind, the Turkish government may authorize restoration work for an orphanage that was wrested from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1964, amid rising tensions between Turkey and Greece.
The 122-year-old edifice — the second-largest timber structure in the world — is lying in ruins atop a hill on Büyük Ada, the largest of Princes' Islands. The 206-room behemoth sheltered thousands of orphans. It was originally intended to house tourists arriving on the Orient Express.
In 2010, the Patriarchate won a tortuous legal battle in the European Court of Human Rights for its return. The patriarch reportedly plans to establish a global environmental research center at the site and will undoubtedly lobby for funds to restore the orphanage during his North American tour.