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An American Commitment to Religious Freedom

Marc Grossman, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Remarks to the Archon Business Breakfast
July 28, 2004

This report can be read in its original format on the State Department Website at: http://www.state.gov/p/34850.htm



I am honored to be here with the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Order of St. Andrew, an important voice in support of religious freedom, human rights, and tolerance worldwide

Over the years, His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has set an example for all of us, regardless of faith. His All Holiness is the keeper of a great historic tradition and a leader with a vision for the 21st century. His contributions to tolerance and the environment are legion. He has built important bridges between Orthodoxy and other faiths, and made great efforts to foster peace among the peoples of the Aegean region.

Likewise, Your Eminence, Archbishop Demetrios, you are a pastor of patience, strength, and love � and I wish you every success with the energetic work you do on behalf of the Orthodox church and community. It is an honor for me to be here with you today.

And, National Commander, my friend, Dr. Anthony Limberakis, Archon Alexander Pritsos, and your fellow Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it is a pleasure to be here and I thank you for all the important work you do.

When I last had the honor to address this group in July 2000, I was Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources. As was the case then, I welcome this opportunity to speak with you today about a number of issues in which we all share a deep interest.

Occasions like this allow me to reflect on what it is we try to do for Americans each day at the State Department. Put most simply: this is a chance for us to talk about, to remember, and to celebrate the great good America and Americans do every day in this world, in so many ways and in so many places.

The United States has always been a country that has tried to help people meet their challenges � and we Americans are also people who act on our beliefs in democracy, human rights, and religious freedom.

The United States was founded on a commitment to religious freedom � a fundamental human right that enriches us all. And we have worked hard as Americans to increase international recognition and protection of an individual�s essential right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief.

Religious freedom around the world � and especially in Turkey � is a crucial matter to you and to me, having over the years spent time and effort focused not only on the needs of the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey, but Turkey�s Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, and other religious communities as well.

We have seen over the past 15 years a real transformation in Turkey. The human rights picture there has improved: greater freedom of speech and constitutional and legal changes have expanded individual rights. Turks have made these changes for many reasons: because we have asked, because you have asked, because the European Union has set standards. But, fundamentally, Turks have made these changes to their society because Turks need them, because Turks want them, and because they are right.

But we know � Turks, the United States, and the European Union � that more work needs to be done. There are more reforms the Turkish people want and deserve, and we are optimistic that they will continue on the path they have chosen and we will do our part to encourage more reforms and even greater democracy.

One vital challenge on our agenda remains reopening the School of Theology at Halki. With you, I have worked for this for years. I�ve always believed that this is something that the Turkish Government should do without further delay or precondition. President Bush discussed Halki with religious leaders and senior Turkish Government officials during his trip to Turkey last month. The United States will continue to press that Turkey open Halki now.

Although security precautions prevented President Bush from visiting the Patriarchate as he was looking forward to doing, he did have the honor to meet with Patriarch Bartholomew and other religious leaders as his first activity in Istanbul before the NATO Summit � and he also enjoyed a brief separate meeting with His All Holiness.

We remain concerned about the Ecumenical Patriarchate's property rights and about regulations on religious practices. We need positive steps in this area. Dr. Limberakis and an Archon delegation traveled to Turkey this past February and they, accompanied by United States Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman, met Turkish officials to discuss these concerns. I compliment you and admire you for taking this trip and making this effort.

I remain an optimist. Your faith needs and deserves living links to its most holy and respected traditions and deserves links as well to the future � a Halki, for example, where the next generation of clergy can be trained and places where people may live, study, and worship.

We will continue to urge Turkey to expand and deepen the key reforms and progress it is making. These reforms are not only good for Turkey. They are also good for Greece and Turkey's ties to Greece.

Prime Minister Erdogan told President Bush that he wishes to see further improvement in Greek-Turkish relations and Prime Minister Karamanlis has told President Bush that he also shares this goal. We will do our part to encourage an even more positive 21st century relationship that benefits the peoples of both countries.

The last few years have witnessed a remarkable transformation in Greek-Turkish relations. One need only look back to the difficult days of the mid-1990s � near hostilities in the Aegean in 1996; �bumping� incidents involving naval vessels and fishing boats; bilateral dialogue that was really more of an exchange of warnings and threats; and a regular need for U.S. intervention � to realize how much things have changed.

Now, both governments regularly consult with one another � at all levels � without the need for facilitation or mediation. Prime Minister Erdogan was one of the first official visitors Prime Minister Karamanlis received, a visit that Prime Minister Karamanlis lauded when he met President Bush in May.

We have been happy witnesses over the last 2 years to see: Greece and Turkey suspend their military exercises on Cyprus; a reduction in naval and aviation tensions in and over the Aegean; initiation of Greek demining of border areas; and Turkey�s pledge to assist Greece�s efforts to protect the Athens Olympic Games from terrorism.

And, in an illustration of the optimism that characterizes present Greek-Turkish relations, two weeks ago, Prime Minister Karamanlis was an honored guest at the wedding of Prime Minister Erdogan�s daughter in Istanbul.

I believe that Turkish membership in the European Union will not only lead to a better, more open Turkey, but also a more successful neighbor and ally for Greece and the rest of Europe. It is no accident that Greece is an advocate of Turkey�s accession to membership.

Turkey has taken great strides to meet the European Union's Copenhagen political criteria:

  • The role of the military in politics has been sharply reduced;
  • There have been eight historic reform packages since 2001, and another one is being readied;
  • We are seeing greater minority and cultural rights, including radio and TV broadcasts in Kurdish;
  • There is a �zero tolerance� policy toward torture and the government is actively prosecuting violations;
  • Freedom of speech is being expanded.

So, I hope that the EU this December meets its side of the agreement made in Copenhagen 2 years ago and sets a date to begin negotiations for Turkey�s accession to membership. Such a decision is not � and must not � be about religion, culture, wealth, or size, but is a matter of the EU fulfilling its commitment based upon Turkey meeting its promises.

Another key matter to which the United States and others are paying close attention is that of Cyprus, an island divided for far too long.

I regret that an historic opportunity for a viable, lasting peace was missed in the April 24 referendum on the Annan Plan. Although we respect the referendum process, the fact remains that the Annan Plan is the best basis on which a settlement is achievable.

We remain committed to seeing a peace agreement reached � but, as Secretary-General Annan recently indicated � the responsibility for forward movement now rests largely in the hands of Cypriots of both communities.

The United States remains ready and willing as a member of the UN Security Council to discuss Greek Cypriot concerns about security and implementation of the plan.

Given the vote by Turkish Cypriots in favor of peace with Greek Cypriots and a future in Europe, we want to reduce their isolation, including easing travel and trade restrictions.

What we are doing does not in any way indicate U.S. recognition of the Turkish Republic of Cyprus. And these moves are not intended to �punish� anyone for the results of the April referendum.

All Americans should understand and remain committed to the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. As Archons, you have long demonstrated a special interest in promoting and defending this most profound human desire. Your church has honored you, and it has also called you into continuing service.

As your friend and supporter, I have had the good fortune and the welcome opportunity to make the promotion of religious freedom � and tolerance, democracy, and other human liberties � an important part of my life and my work.

If I can leave you with just one message today, it would be to ask you to stay engaged in your personal, religious, and organizational quest to support religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity in Turkey and around the world. Your voice is crucial. And it is heard.

[End]

Released on August 2, 2004


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