The chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed concern over "oppressive tactics that impede freedom" for Orthodox Christian believers within Turkey, as well as the 300 million Orthodox believers around the world.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-California, speaking at the closing session of the Third Archon International Conference on Religious Freedom held in Washington, emphasized that there "must be change and it must be now. I have met with the Ecumenical Patriarch (His All-Holiness Bartholomew) and there is no one more willing to engage with Turkish leaders and the community to promote peace, tolerance, and inter-faith dialogue."
The three-day conference, attended by some 250 people, was sponsored by the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Sessions were held at various venues in Washington, D.C. The closing event was held at the U.S. Institute for Peace.
"Last week, we marked the Feast Day of Apostle St. Andrew, who in the first century A.D. courageously and freely shared his religious beliefs, leading thousands into the faith and establishing the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Byzantium -- Istanbul in modern day Turkey," the congressman noted. "It is a tragedy today's inheritors of this great legacy are so thoroughly constrained in the practice of their beliefs. The Turkish government has placed many regulations that prevent the free election of their religious leaders."
Rep. Royce also pointed out these issues facing Christianity in Turkey;
- Orthodox churches and properties have been confiscated and vandalized, left to ruin, or converted into mosques, museums and even casinos.
- Religious icons have been destroyed or sold on the black market.
- The lack of official legal status has meant that the church cannot raise and manage funds to maintain its properties.
- Its priests who cannot obtain legal residency must rely on tourist visas, which must be frequently renewed in order to serve the church in Turkey.
- The Ecumenical Patriarchate has also been unable to train its own clergy in Turkey, as the only Orthodox seminary in the country located on the island of Halki has remained closed for more than 40 years.
"There must be change and it must be now," Royce added. "Yet he needs our help. At every opportunity I have pressed Turkish leaders to lift these onerous restrictions and restore religious liberty to Orthodox believers." Royce said he has asked the Secretary of State to use all his diplomatic leverage to press Turkish leaders to abandon plans to convert Hagia Sophia into an operational mosque.
In his talk, Royce also stressed the United States has a special responsibility to lead the world to put a stop to mass genocide against Christianity in the Middle East, adding there is a rising tide of persecution in the region resulting in a dramatic decrease in the Christian population.
"We have witnessed that cruelty by the hands of ISIS fighters, who over the past few years have conducted a targeted campaign of genocide against Christian believers," Royce said. "These terrorists have even coerced children to carry out their atrocities, in a twisted attempt to corrupt future generations with their warped ideology. In the face of such atrocity, we must speak out and we must act."
Royce recently held a hearing on what he termed the "dire situation" confronting Christians in Iraq and Syria. One of those who appeared at the congressional hearing was a Christian sister who testified that ISIS' brutality was "cultural and human genocide," adding that the only Christians that remain in the Plain of Ninevah are those who are held as hostages.
Royce closed his presentation with a quote from Saint Andrew the Apostle, "Love is acceptance.," adding, "let that be a guiding principle for us all as we redouble our efforts to end religious persecution in all its overt and subtle forms, as we honor the legacy of those first church leaders by promising freedom of religion for all oppressed people around the world."
Also speaking at the closing session were His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, and Dr. Anthony J. Limberakis, National Commander of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle.
The Archbishop said despite the dire situation in the Holy Lands and Middle East that Christianity "will prevail with a terrific weapon -- truth and love of life. Everything is possible for those who believe."
Dr. Limberakis also stressed the need for "more urgent conversations on Christianity in the lands of its birth and growth," adding that "our inspiration is to forge ahead with our mission until the darkness of hate and prejudice fails."