Although critical of Donald Trump in the past, the Constantinople Patriarchate decided to complain to Washington about the Hagia Sophia being turned into a mosque. The US president reportedly declared himself a “helper and supporter” of the Constantinople Patriarchate and of Patriarch Bartholomew personally, and stressed that he would immediately begin the necessary interventions. Why is the US leader getting involved?
The White House was visited by Archbishop Elpidophoros, the head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, where he did not meet with officials at his level, but with US Vice President Mike Pence and his boss, US President Donald Trump.
Let every man praise the bridge he goes over
It is clear that Elpidophoros did not pay a visit to the US president and vice president in order to bless the White House, and it was definitely not to criticise the nationalist principles of Donald Trump’s policies. According to the archbishop, he and the US president discussed not just the fate of the Hagia Sophia, but also “ongoing security concerns for the Ecumenical Patriarchate and issues of religious liberty” in Turkey.
They are actually pressing issues, given Ankara’s commitment to rejecting the principles of a secular state and the growth of Islamic sentiment in the country. Until recently, there was an unspoken status quo between the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople and Erdoğan: Bartholomew (like other Christian patriarchs in Turkey) would not make even the slightest peep in opposition to orders issued by the administration of Turkey’s president, in return for which they would be guaranteed supposed safety, protection of property, and even some semblance of Ankara showing respect for the country’s Christian past.
Now, however, this status quo is being violated. Turkey will continue converting Christian shrines (even those with a secular museum status) into Islamic ones, and Patriarch Bartholomew will have to make at least a small peep in opposition, since he is still the nominal leader of world Orthodoxy.
It is clear that, in this situation, the Greek patriarch needs some kind of “backing” that will protect him from problems with the Turkish administration. The ideal “backing” would come from Moscow, of course – Recep Erdoğan values Turkey’s partnership with Russia too highly to jeopardise it. (Russia is the only great or even large neighbouring power with which Turkey has maintained a good relationship.) However, after Bartholomew supported Ukrainian sectarians by recognising their status as a local Orthodox Church in defiance of the Moscow Patriarchate, it is unlikely that the Kremlin would welcome the Patriarch of Constantinople, never mind issue any kind of guarantees.
Asking Ukraine for protection is pointless, to put it mildly – and not just because of the insignificant foreign policy influence of its leaders, who keep begging Europe for new loans. As far as Kiev is concerned, a partnership with Turkey on the Crimea issue is far more important than showing gratitude to Bartholomew for recognising Ukrainian sectarians.
So, that leaves just one option – to bow to Trump. And, judging by the outcome of the 45-minute meeting (half an hour with Pence and 15 minutes with the president), the bowing was successful. “The US President appeared very annoyed and expressed his concern about the issue of the protection of human rights and especially religious freedoms of minorities in Turkey. In fact, he declared himself a helper and supporter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and personally of Patriarch Bartholomew, as well as of Hellenism, and stressed that he would proceed immediately with the necessary interventions”, writes Greek Reporter USA.
The Moor will continue his work
The US president’s irritation and outburst could, of course, be explained by the special ties between the US and Archbishop Bartholomew. There are persistent rumours that there was more to Bartholomew’s decision to legitimise the Ukrainian sectarians than personal ambition.
It is true that Bartholomew dreamed of getting Ukrainian parishes, with their millions of believers, under his control, thereby at least doubling the number of people under his spiritual guidance, but it is unlikely that he would have dared go it alone against the heavyweight Patriarchate of Moscow. He made the decision when the US (home to almost half of the believers who obey Bartholomew) asked him to. Washington figured that legitimising the Ukrainian schismatics would weaken the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Moscow, thereby destroying yet another cultural and spiritual thread linking Ukraine and Russia.
However, the Constantinople Moor has done his work, and the US president owes him nothing. Washington is not generally inclined to sentimentality when it comes to the allies (or rather ‘tools’) it no longer needs – this can be seen from the Kurds it abandoned and also its lukewarm attitude towards Ukraine’s leaders. The White House is intervening on behalf of Patriarch Bartholomew’s “security” because it is in the foreign policy interests of America and the domestic political interests of Donald Trump himself.
So, the “rights” of the Patriarch of Constantinople will be yet another way for the US to put diplomatic pressure on Turkey – a country that Washington is already regarding not so much a NATO ally as a rival and competitor in the Middle East. A certain anti-Turkish consensus has developed among America’s elite. US liberals have long had a bone to pick with Erdoğan for his persecution of and large-scale crackdown on Turkey’s liberal opposition, while US conservatives are frightened by Erdoğan’s Islamism and his anti-Christian policy. It is unsurprising that there continues to be a wave of publications on the Hagia Sophia issue in the US.
In this situation, the president is also working for the domestic electorate – he is playing the role of a defender of Christians and Christianity and, in doing so, is trying to contrast himself with his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. He has already retweeted posts terrifying voters with Biden’s intention to study Islam at school, and also that his opponent will continue “the Democratic Party’s crusade against Catholics”.
Since Biden has already notched up a few points on the Hagia Sophia issue (he called Elpidophoros with words of support, and also expressed his deep regret over the museum’s conversion into a mosque), Trump is raising the stakes. Hence why he met with Elpidophoros and is taking Patriarch Bartholomew under America’s wing. At the same time, of course, he is remaining modestly silent about the fact that the schism in world Orthodoxy created by Bartholomew with Washington’s support played a role in Erdoğan’s appropriation of the Hagia Sophia Museum.