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Archons pave the way for the Second International Archon Religious Freedom Conference in Berlin and vigorously pursue religious freedom issues in Turkey

The delegation consisted of National Commander Dr. Anthony J. Limberakis; George C. Rockas, Esq., Conference Planning Chairman; Judge B. Theodore Bozonelis, Regional Commander and Conference Planning Co-chairman; and Father Alexander Karloutsos, Spiritual Advisor to the Order.
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With the blessings of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, on September 9, 2012, a delegation of Archons of the Order of St. Andrew arrived in Berlin, Germany, the site of the Second International Archon Religious Freedom Conference. That conference will occur during the first week of December 2013 and its theme will be "Tearing Down Walls." The purpose of the visit was to do advance work for the upcoming conference, including meeting with local religious leaders, politicians, diplomats and journalists and inspecting possible meeting venues. While in Turkey, the delegation vigoursly pursued religious freedom issues regarding the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The delegation, pictured right, consisted of National Commander, Dr. Anthony J. Limberakis, Conference Planning Chairman, George C. Rockas, Regional Commander and Conference Planning Co-chairman, Judge B. Theodore Bozonelis and Spiritual Advisor to the Order, Father Alexander Karloutsos. They were assisted by Father Emmanuel Sfiatkos, Archmandrite of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Rector in Berlin.

Archons joined His All-Holiness in celebrating the Exaltation of the Holy Cross at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George. (Photo by N. Manginas)

Thereafter, on September 12, 2012 the delegation left Berlin and traveled to Istanbul and Ankara for meetings with Turkish Government officials, diplomats and minority community members. While in Istanbul they paid their respects to His All-Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and attended Divine Liturgy on the day of the Exaltation of Holy Cross at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George.

Berlin

The Archon delegation, met with Jörg Lau, editor of “Die Zeit,” (The Times) which is one of the most widely read German weekly newspapers, who offered insight into religious freedom from a German perspective.

Shortly after landing in Berlin on Sunday morning, September 9, 2012, the Archon delegation hit the ground running and set the pace for the ensuing week-long Religious Freedom Mission. They visited 11 hotels investigating potential conference venues and meeting rooms.

On their first full day in Berlin, Monday September 10, the delegation met with two journalists -- Jorg Law, Editor of Die Zeit and Karen Krüger, Editor of Frankfuter Allgemeine Zeitung. Both reporters have a particular interest in religious freedom and both are well aware of the issues facing the Greek Orthodox community and other minority communities in Turkey. They each promised to work with the Order in developing the conference program and covering the conference in their respective publications.

On the political front, the delegation met with Cem Özdemir, co-chairman of the German Political Party Alliance '90/The Greens, and a member of the German Parliament. Mr. Özdemir is not only a leading political figure in Germany but also a member of Germany's Turkish community, which numbers approximately four million people and is the largest such community outside of Turkey. He is a strong supporter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and has often publically expressed this support. During the meeting, he told the delegation that it is "in the interests of Turkey that multi -- culturalism does not disappear and that all Minorities in Turkey should be granted respect." He expressed support for the conference and agreed to participate personally in it.
 

A meeting was held with His Excellency H Avni Karslioglu, Turkey's ambassador to Germany, where extensive discussions were held on the Orthodox Theological Seminary of Halki.

Religious leaders that the delegation met with included (1) Provost Friederika von Kirchbach, Deputy Bishop of the Protestant Church in Berlin -- Brandenburg -- Silesian Upper Lusatia and Chairperson of the Ecumenical Council for Berlin and Bradenburg, (2) His Excellency Dr. Matthias Heinrich, Auxiliary Bishop of the Berlin Archdiocese of the Catholic Church and (3) representatives of the American Jewish Committee, including Director Deidre Burger. During each meeting, the delegation described plans for the conference and elicited ideas. Bishop von Kirchbach and Bishop Heinrich in particular expressed strong support and promised that their communities would participate in the conference.
 

On Tuesday, September 11, the Archon delegation met with Deidre Berger, Director of the Berlin Office and American Jewish Committee, where discussions were held on the current issues of religious freedom.

The last category of individuals the delegation saw was diplomats. They met with (1) Andreas Fryganas from the Greek Embassy, (2) Avni Karslıoğlu, Turkey's Ambassador to Germany, (3) Minas A. Hadjimichael, Cyprus' Ambassador to Germany and (4) Philip Murphy, the United States Ambassador to Germany. During each meeting, religious freedom issues associated with religious minorities in Turkey were discussed as well as plans for the upcoming conference. Ambassador Hadjimichael expressed the view that the conference should review and analyze proposed changes to the Turkish constitution in the context of European principles and ideals. He embraced the view that any changes to the Turkish Constitution must reflect those ideals. Ambassador Karslıoğlu started the meeting by saying that he believes in "diversity and unity" and that the "right balance" must be struck between these principles. Without explicit reference, he invoked the doctrine of reciprocity and called for solutions based on the concept of "realpolitik" and bilateral discussions between the Greek and Turkish Governments. He concluded the meeting by saying "freedom should be given to all" based upon a "holistic approach to each group's problems."
 

On the last day in Berlin -- September 12, 2012 -- the delegation visited Ambassador Philip Murphy, the United States Ambassador to Germany. He is a strong supporter of religious freedom and minority rights. He stated that the upcoming conference is "really important," that he "wants to be on the side of minorities" and that religious freedom is "right in his wheel house." He pledged the Embassy's full support for the conference and volunteered to speak at it.

Istanbul & Ankara

Meetings were held on the return of confiscated properties with Patriarchal attorneys Father Joakim Billis, Yannis Ktistakis and Archon Laki Vingas in Istanbul.

After concluding the meeting with Ambassador Murphy, the delegation traveled from Berlin to Istanbul. Upon arrival in Istanbul, Judge Bozonelis and the delegation participated in a meeting concerning the return of foundation properties with lawyers and advisors to the foundations includes Archon Laki Vingas, Fr. Joachim Billis and Patriarchal Attorney Yannis Ktistakis.

The next day, the delegation traveled to Ankara where they had important meetings with Diyanet President Mehmet Görmez and Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç. Prior to meeting with Turkish officials, they met with Jess Bailey, Charge d'Affaires of the United States Embassy in Turkey at his official residence and reviewed issues of concern to religious minorities and the upcoming conference. Commander Limberakis expressed appreciation for the Embassy's past support for the Order's work promoting religious freedom.
 

The delegation met with U.S. Charge d’Affaires Jess Baily, at the official residence in Ankara.

After the meeting with Charge de'Affaires Bailey, they traveled to the Diyanet or Presidency of Religious Affairs for the meeting with President Görmez, who is considered the leading muslim cleric in Turkey. In July, President Görmez visited the Patriarchate and while there expressed support for the reopening of Halki. The meeting received extensive press coverage with at least twenty five reporters and numerous cameramen and photographers present for the initial remarks made by President Görmez and Commander Limberakis.

President Görmez opened the meeting by expressing his sadness and condolences over the death of the United States Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens and three employees. He stated that "no matter how provocative the movie [(i.e., the movie posted on You Tube mocking the Prophet Muhammad)], it is not an excuse for violent acts" and that you "cannot be explain such acts with human or Islamic reason." He further said that "provocative acts do not belong with freedom of expression" and that "people of all cultures should live together in peace and comfort." Commander Limberakis responded by thanking the President for receiving the Archons and expressing gratitude for the President's support for the reopening of Halki. He then thanked the President for extending condolences for the "horrific acts" in Libya that cost four lives. He further said that the murders occurred on September 11, the anniversary of 9/11, when "innocents of all faiths -- Christians, Jews, Muslims and non-believers -- lost their lives." He concluded his opening remarks by saying that "the connection of Orthodox in America to the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a connection to our faith" and then said he was appreciative of the recent positive steps Prime Minister Erdoğan and other government officials have made with respect to minority rights.

President Görmez then talked about globalization and multi-culturism and stated that it is no longer appropriate to refer to people by the terms "minority" or "majority" and that he feels "offended" by the use of such terms. He addressed the issue of reciprocity and denied that it is a valid concept. He said "it is major mistake to use reciprocity in the fields of faith and culture" and that you "cannot deny Christians if Muslims are denied elsewhere." Despite these facts, he said you cannot respond to "bad attitudes with bad attitudes."
 

The Archon delegation met with the President of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Professor Mehmet Gormez, Turkey’s top Muslim cleric, where detailed discussions regarding religious freedom and the reopening of Halki Seminary were held.

The Archon delegation met with the President of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Professor Mehmet Gormez, Turkey's top Muslim cleric, where detailed discussions regarding religious freedom and the reopening of Halki Seminary were held. Commander Limberakis responded by pointing out the need to reopen Halki and that 41 years is too long to keep the seminary closed. The President agreed and in an obvious reference to the upcoming conference theme said the "important thing is not tearing down the physical walls" but "tearing down the walls in the minds and hearts of people."

On the subject of confiscated properties and the recent law allowing for their return to minority foundations, the President said that it is "sacrilegious to use property owned by others" and that his office "exerted pressure for the recent changes in the law." He further said that many properties owned by majority foundations have been confiscated too and have still not been returned. He expressed hope that the new Constitution deals with this issue.

Toward the end of meeting, he again expressed his disdain for use of the term "reciprocity" but he then said countries should abide by the principles of "equality" and "equal treatment," effectively saying Muslims in other countries do not receive equal treatment. For example, he pointed out that Muslim communities living in Slavic countries face many of the same problems of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He urged the Archons to focus on religious freedom issues "from a broader perspective" and to advocate for equal treatment of all people, not just for the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

After the meeting with the President, the delegation met for 1 ½ hours with Bülent Arinç, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey. He said he was "saddened by the loss of life of the Ambassador and three employees," expressed his condolences, and described the deaths as "open brutality." He also said that "all faiths should be respected "and neither Islam nor humanity accepts the ending of life." According to the Deputy Prime Minister, Turkey "wants all religious minorities to live in comfort and peace" and "minorities are no different than us, they are part of us."
 

On Thursday, September 12, members of the Archon delegation had an hour and a half meeting with Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, which covered major concerns in detail; and reviewed recent positive steps.

Commander Limberakis noted that the Deputy Prime Minister has been a strong advocate for the Ecumenical Patriarchate and thanked him for that support. In early 2011, he was the first Deputy Prime Minister to visit the Phanar since 1952. The Commander then raised with the Deputy Prime Minister specific issues of concern to the Ecumenical Patriarchate including (1) the rejection of five hierarchs' applications for Turkish citizenship by the Turkish Government and (2) the continued closure of Halki. The Commander also said that the Archons were "grateful" for recent Government steps to return properties to minority foundations.

In response to these comments, the Deputy Prime Minister went into an extended and detailed response touching on a number of issues. He said that discussions about reopening Halki had gone on "far too long" and recognized that "most of the demands [of religious minorities] were rightful." However, he went to say that most demands "have not been met because of political and legal considerations."

He concluded by saying the Government is aware of incidents in 1955 and 1964, but that "these sad incidents remain in the past" and that Turkey is a different country today. He invited people who left Turkey because of those incidents to return to Turkey where he said "they will be treated with respect."
 

The Archon delegation met with His Excellency Egemen Bağış, Minister for E.U. Affairs and Chief Negotiator.

On the last day of the trip -- Friday, September 14, 2012 -- the delegation attended the Divine Liturgy at the Patriarchal Cathedral of St. George to celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. After the liturgy, the delegation went to a meeting with Egemen Bağış, Minister of EU Affairs and Turkey's chief negotiator in accession talks with the European Union.  An Archon delegation first met Minister Bağış in 2007 in Ankara when he was Vice Chairman of the AK Party. Minister Bağış noted that "things are much better" since that time.

Commander Limberakis opened the meeting by saying that a "crime commited in the name of religion is a crime against religion" (alluding to the Bosporus Declaration of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew) and that "religious freedom is a fundamental human right that cannot be compromised." He thanked the Minister for supporting the rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He then condemned the anti-Islamic movie that caused recent riots and he condemned disrespect against all religions. The Minister responded by saying the person who made the movie has a "sick mind."

He went on to say that he fully supports the reopening of Halki along with Prime Minister Erdoğan. But he said that before Halki is reopened "the Government must show it received something in exchange." He said Prime Minister Erdoğan and Prime Minister Samaras should "cut a deal" when they meet later in the fall. He denied this was "reciprocity" but instead called it "mutual gestures." Father Karloutsos said hopefully both prime ministers will have "the glory of being responsible for Halki being reopened."
 

The Archon delegation met with religious minorities at Holy Trinity Church near Taksim Square in Istanbul, led by Archon Laki Vingas, the official government representative of the religious minority foundations in Turkey.

After the meeting with Minister Bağış, the delegation met with representatives of minority communities, including Armenians, Syriacs, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Alevi Muslims and Greek Orthodox. Minority representatives exchanged ideas for the upcoming conference with the Archon delegation. After that meeting, the Conference Planning Committee was able to further refine the program. The Conference focus will be on (1) the concept of equality from a legal, religious, political and ethical perspective and (2) the proposed new constitution.

The trip proved to be invaluable with respect to conference planning. The 2013 International Religious Freedom Conference will be an historic one bringing together scholars, politicians, diplomats, journalists, religious leaders and members of minority communities. In addition, the meetings with Turkish Government officials highlighted the fact that the principles of equal treatment and reciprocity are an important component of any debate on the rights of religious minorities in Turkey. Those principles will be addressed in detail at the 2013 International Religious Freedom Conference. All Archons and their families should plan to attend the conference during the first week of December 2013.


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