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Remarks of National Commander Limberakis at Institute on Religion & Public Policy Conference Religious Freedom in Secular Turkey: The EU Effect

I am honored this afternoon to offer a brief statement on behalf of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America who just returned last week from a nine-day pilgrimage and fact finding trip in Turkey. During the trip we interviewed officials of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Director of the Board of Trustees of its largest foundation, the Balukli Hospital, visited the now government confiscated orphanage on Prinkipos (B�y�kada) Island, the closed down seminary on Halki Island and met with Foreign Minister Gul accompanied by US Ambassador Eric S. Edelman. We have made a number of similar visitations to Turkey over the years, the most recent being earlier this year in February 2004.

The Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America is an organization of the leading Orthodox Churchmen in the United States whose mission is to defend the Holy Mother Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Despite a new political party now leading Turkey, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is still a church in captivity where conditions are worsening, not improving since our last visit in February when we were given encouraging signs after face to face meetings from Education Minister Celic, Religion Minister Aiden and Interior Minister Aksu. At that time we were given the false impression that Halki School of Theology would soon re-open after 33 years of closure. Its classrooms are still closed and its dormitories empty so that clergy of the Orthodox Faith cannot be trained for leadership positions in the Church.

We have documentation of the properties confiscated by the government of Turkey from the Balukli Hospital, a charitable institution affiliated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate operating for over 250 years. This 650 bed hospital offers care to 30-40,000 patients per year and has the premier drug and alcohol rehab facility in Istanbul, a city of 15 million inhabitants; a real asset to the community at large. Yet a new tax is now being imposed on the Hospital, a 42% tax retroactive to 1999 which would preclude its continuing operation.

The loss of property rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a calamitous situation that is worsening. The Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1936 owned some 8000 properties which is now dramatically down to less than 500 due to government confiscation, and the loss is occurring at an escalating rate since 1999.

Emblematic of the religious human rights situation in Turkey can be expressed succinctly in two episodes that occurred during our trip. The first was an official statement originating from the Prime Minister�s Office for all government personnel to boycott a reception for our visiting delegation hosted by Ambassador and Mrs. Edelman at the Official Residence in Ankara and the Banquet at the Ankara Hilton Hotel we hosted for the Ambassador, because the invitation to these two separate events included the name of our organization: Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the word Ecumenical was so offensive to the government that they instructed their officials not to come to the events.

Secondly, we visited the once magnificent Orphanage owned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate since 1902. This facility once cared for some 200 orphans, but due to the tragic events of 1955 and 1964 when most Greek inhabitants of Istanbul were forced to immigrate, the Orphanage fell into disuse and disrepair and at this time it is in a state of ruin. Repeated attempts to maintain the property where unsuccessful because building permits where never granted by the authorities. When a property falls into disuse, it is subject to state seizure and the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been unsuccessful in safeguarding this property from government seizure as declared by the Turkish Supreme Court when it handed down a decision in favor of the government on October 21, 2004.

The Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate respectfully bring these egregious violations of religious freedom to your attention because they are violations of our own religious freedom, as American citizens whose spiritual father, the Ecumenical Patriarch is headquartered in Turkey. It is our hope that with the anticipated accession of Turkey into the European Union, which we wholeheartedly support, there will be real progress in religious human rights in Turkey.


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