Archbishop Demetrios of America, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; Holocaust survivor Rabbi Arthur Schneier, President of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation; Roman Catholic Cardinal of Washington Theodore E. McCarrick; Dr. Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ; and Dr. Anthony J. Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of St. Andrew testify before US Helsinki Commission
WASHINGTON, D.C., March 16, 2005 -- His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in North America, led a panel discussion which presented U.S. senators and congressmen with a clear picture of how religious human rights violations by the Turkish government have been working to exterminate the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Christian community in that country.
Archbishop Demetrios, who is also the Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America, joined the speakers at a United States Helsinki Commission briefing at the Rayburn Capitol Office building Wednesday morning. The briefing highlighted Turkey's systemic efforts to undermine the Orthodox Church, violating numerous international treaties to which it has agreed. Other panelists included Holocaust survivor Rabbi Arthur Schneier, President of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation; Roman Catholic Cardinal of Washington Theodore E. McCarrick; Dr. Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ; and Dr. Anthony Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of St. Andrew.
It was claimed during the meeting that Turkey had acted to threaten the existence of the Patriarchate and the call was made for Turkey to open the Halki Theological School. Republican Congressman Christopher H. Smith, who is also the Co-President of the Helsinki Commission active since 1976, blamed Turkey for systematically attempting to prevent the activities of the Patriarchate. Smith determined the main problems as “Denying the Patriarchate’s the opportunity to purchase property, or to be involved in the sale of property and similar activities, disallowing the opening of the Halki Theological School, and destroying churches’ by creating hurdles preventing their repair and not recognizing the Patriarchate’s “Ecumenical” status, in other words, denying its universal status. Mentioning Turkish history was full of religious tolerance, Smith said, “I invite the Turkish government to fulfill its obligations under the context of the OSCE,” and added that the current implementations should be based on Turkish history.
U.S. lawmakers are growing increasingly concerned with the violations as Turkey's negotiations to join the European Union are set to begin this year. The Helsinki Commission, also known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, is an independent federal agency composed of nine senators, nine representatives and one official from each of the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. In the afternoon, Archbishop Demetrios presented the issues to another group of legislators, the Congressional Working Group on Religious Freedom.
Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) said the Commission will host two follow-up briefings in the near future: one to discuss religious persecution faced by Muslims in Turkey, and a third with the Turkish government.
"The concern of this Commission is the protection of religious rights and freedoms," said Smith. "Turkey's treatment of the Ecumenical Patriarchate violates its obligations under international human rights law."
Archbishop Demetrios and Dr. Limberakis detailed the severe restrictions on property ownership which have allowed the government to confiscate nearly 7,000 properties from the Ecumenical Patriarchate since 1936. Behind them stood placard-size photos of the most recently seized property, an orphanage on Buyukada island which once housed hundreds of homeless children, and the 150-year-old Halki Theological School, whose forcible closure in 1971 has prevented the Orthodox from training their own clergy. They told of 1955 riots which forced thousands of Orthodox from the country, eventually whittling their numbers from 100,000 in the first half of the 20th century to 2,000 today.
Cardinal McCarrick remembered appealing to the U.S. government to urge the reopening of Halki, which he called the "West Point of Orthodox seminaries."
"All of us in Christian traditions are minorities someplace in the world," noted Dr. Edgar. "We can't afford religious prejudice anywhere."
Emanuel Demos, the Legal Counsel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, advocated that Patriarchate’s position should not only be limited to relations between Turkey and Greece. Chairman of the Conscious Application Foundation Rabbi Arthur Schneier on the other hand claimed that Turkey should consider a show of international respect for the Patriarchate as an opportunity. Schneier said the Virgin Mary Syriac Church that was damaged following the attacks committed on two synagogues on November 16, 2003; remains in need of repair, however, the Turkish government had taken steps in order to repair the synagogues.
A Yale Law School paper was presented, which detailed the ways in which the government discriminates against religious minorities, thus violating international law. The government is also threatening the 250-year-old Balukli Hospital and Home for the Aged with bankruptcy by recently imposing a 42-percent tax, retroactive to 1999, by claiming the facility, which serves 30,000 to 40,000 Turkish citizens each year, is not a non-profit institution.
After the briefing, Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), also an Archon, and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) hosted a lunch for the Archbishop and those with him, including a contingent of Archons from around the country. Other members of Congress came to the Archbishop to express their support of religious freedom for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, including Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), John Corzine?(D-NJ),?Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), Gordon Smith (R-OR), Rick Santorum (R-PA), and Daniel Inouye (D-HI), and Representatives Michael Bilirakis (R-FL), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Marty Meehan (D-MA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Richard Neal (D-MA) Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chris Smith (D-NJ), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Diane E. Watson (D-CA).
Dr. Limberakis was enthusiastic about the presence of the interfaith leaders and "the singular voice" in which they spoke of the Ecumenical Patriarch. "This was a watershed event in our struggle to defend the Holy and Great Mother Church," said Dr. Limberakis. "We are having a hearing in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. with congressmen and senators. That has never happened. I feel the United States government is making an effort to stand firm on this."