On Saturday, June 22, 2019, the Honorable Alex M. Azar II, Secretary of Health and Human Services, spoke at the enthronement of His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America, at the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. Secretary Azar has always had a strong defense on religious freedom and his remarks are listed below.
Your Eminence Elpidophoros,
Your Eminence Augoustinos, Personal Representative of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew,
Foreign Minister Katrougalos,
Members of Congress, members of the clergy, and distinguished guests:
I am humbled and honored to be here with leaders from across America and around the world to celebrate the joyous occasion of the enthronement of a new Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.
I bring greetings to the new Archbishop and to all of you from President Trump and Vice President Pence, who have a great appreciation for the work of the Church in America and the value that Americans of all faiths bring to our country.
America’s founding drew on the dual traditions of Athens and Jerusalem, reason and faith.
The Greeks taught the world how to think, while Christ taught the world how to know.
One endeavor cannot flourish without the other. As we read in Proverbs, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.”
The intertwined traditions of Athens and Jerusalem are quite literally symbolized by the Greek Orthodox Church.
They are also well embodied by the great theological and scholarly accomplishments of the new leader whom we welcome today, Archbishop Elpidophoros.
The Greek Orthodox Church has played a powerfully positive role over the course of American history. Well before the founding of our nation, Greek immigrants had settled in Florida. By the late 1800s, the first permanent Greek Orthodox community was firmly established here in New York City.
Sadly, there were dark moments. Some of the newly immigrated Greeks were victims of racial prejudice. It was not uncommon for groups such as the Ku Klux Klan to boycott Greek businesses, or to espouse racist philosophy that regarded Greeks as inferior.
As Greek Americans put down their roots in America, they never forgot the pain of persecution and discrimination. Knowing what it was like to be marginalized, the Orthodox Christian community in America has often led in defending the rights of minorities.
In fact, one of Archbishop Elpidophoros’s predecessors, Archbishop Iakovos, was one of the key faith leaders who advanced America’s civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s.
His commitment to justice led him on a 54-mile journey right alongside Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., a journey that would later be known as the Selma Freedom March.
Archbhisop Iakovos’s leadership not only inspired the faithful under his care—it also influenced leaders in positions of power and authority.
He was a personal friend and adviser to nine U.S. Presidents. It was to no one’s surprise when President Carter awarded Archbishop Iakovos the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.
The most recent Archbishop of America, Demetrios, also distinguished himself with his heroic service to our nation on and following September 11, with his service and witness to the victims of the terrorist attack on this city.
These are just two of the great Greek Orthodox leaders in American history. The Greek Orthodox community has blessed America with leading contributions to science, politics, and business.
Why did all these people with so much potential, so much ambition, come here to America? The answer is generally simple: freedom and opportunity.
But in many cases, the answer was deeper: They were in search of not just political freedom, but the freedom for their souls—the freedom to live out their faith.
That was in part true of my family, when my grandfather arrived here from Amioun, Lebanon, ninety-nine years ago.
On a personal note, I want to greet my fellow Antiochian Christians here today, including Archbishop Elpidophoros’s mother, who has traveled here from Greece, in our ancient tongue: As-salaam alaykum.
Greeks and other Orthodox Christians have come from all around the world, and in particular the Middle East, to practice their faith freely here in America. Such freedom, however, remains under attack throughout the world.
One in nine Christians worldwide experience high levels of persecution.
A century ago, Christians represented about 20 percent of the population of Middle East and North Africa. Today, they represent less than 5 percent of the population.
In all, 245 million Christians around the world have faced persecution as a result of their faith. And the attacks have only grown stronger.
What should be our response? America and the Church today must follow the example of leaders like Archbishop Iakovos.
I am proud to say that America, under the current administration, is fervently committed to protecting religious minorities around the world.
President Trump has led the destruction of the Islamic State, one of the most serious threats to the safety of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East in a very long time. At the same time, we have extended a helping hand to Christians and other minorities, and helped them rebuild.
In Iraq, for instance, we have invested more than $239 million in life-saving humanitarian aid.
Changes by this administration have ensured that this aid is actually directly reaching those most in need. Not only have communities, like those in the Nineveh Valley, been provided with food, water, and shelter; but American aid also helps local businesses and communities rebuild in order to prevent future unrest.
Our commitment to the freedom of religious minorities is a paramount foreign policy priority for President Trump. Last year, the Trump Administration convened the first ministerial meeting ever hosted by the United States to advance religious freedom, and will be hosting the second such gathering this summer.
Our Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, just returned from a trip, taken at Secretary Pompeo’s request, throughout Europe, including to Greece, specifically to meet with Orthodox leaders.
He boldly proclaimed our commitment to the rights of Orthodox Christians—in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Specifically, he strongly reaffirmed the commitment of the United States in supporting the re-opening of the seminary in Halki, Turkey.
As many of you know, Archishop Elpidophoros served as the Abbot of Halki Monastery. He helped revive a brotherhood of clergy at the monastery, where there had not been one for years.
The United States will continue to make the case that the re-opening of Halki as a seminary is absolutely vital to the future of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople.
Our dedication to religious liberty is evident in our efforts overseas, but it extends here at home, too. The Trump Administration has made it a priority to respect Americans’ right not just to worship freely, but to live out their faith in the public square.
We have appreciated the aid of Orthodox leaders in fighting for policies that respect religious freedom here at home, as we have in the fight to protect the lives of the most vulnerable and the voiceless: our unborn sons and daughters.
I am proud to work for a President who has delivered the most pro-life administration in American history.
Sometimes fighting for the voiceless can be controversial, or feel inconvenient. So was Archbishop Iakovos’s decision to march with those seeking liberation from oppression and prejudice, just over 50 years ago.
Doing what we know is right, even in the face of hostility, even when it sets us apart, is part of our Orthodox identity—it has become part of the Orthodox tradition in America.
We are blessed to live here under a Constitution that protects our natural rights, and that holds sacred our first right of religious liberty.
Under such a government bigotry is given no sanction, and persecution no assistance.
But these American traditions cannot truly flourish without faith traditions, too, and without the great church leaders that God has given us to guide our paths.
I know that Archbishop Elpidophoros is already one such leader, and I pray that he may have a long and fruitful tenure here in America.
As I said, today is only the seventh enthronement of a Greek Orthodox Archbishop here in America.
I hope and pray there are seventy or seven hundred more, and it is my honor to join all of you in praying for Archbishop Elpidophoros in particular.
May God grant you many years, Your Eminence: Eis polla eti, despota!
And may God bless you, Your Eminence, may God bless all of America’s Orthodox faithful, and may God bless the country they have so enriched, the United States of America. Thank you.