Hellenic Caucus Co-Chairs Maloney and Bilirakis Introduce Legislation to Hold Turkey Accountable for Violating the Religious Freedoms of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Religious Minorities

WASHINGTON, DC — Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), co-founder and co-chair of Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues, and Congressman Gus M. Bilirakis (R-FL), co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues, today introduced the bipartisan Turkey and Ecumenical Patriarchate Religious Freedom Act of 2021. The legislation would hold Turkey accountable for violating the religious freedoms of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Greek Orthodox Christians, and other religious minorities.

“The United States must uphold our commitment to defending religious freedom abroad by holding Turkey accountable for violating the religious freedoms of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Greek Orthodox Christians, and other religious minorities,” said Congresswoman Maloney. “The Turkey and Ecumenical Patriarchate Religious Freedom Act of 2021 would apply meaningful pressure on Turkey to stop violating the religious freedoms of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Without tangible repercussions from the United States, President Erdoğan will continue to operate with impunity and Turkey will maintain its campaign of religious discrimination against Greek Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and other religious minorities. As co-founder and co-chair of the Hellenic Caucus, I have long called on the Turkish government to respect the rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and reopen the Halki Seminary and this legislation is the action we must take to finally make that happen.”

“The United States must remain consistent in enforcing the expectation of shared democratic values from our so-called allies, including the demonstration of a consistent respect for religious freedom,” said Congressman Bilirakis. “I will continue to join my colleagues and speak out for those whose voices are silenced until the day in which this injustice is rectified.

“It has been an honor for AHI to work with Congresswoman Maloney to build upon and strengthen previous legislation on Turkey’s systemic persecution of the Ecumenical Patriarchate with the introduction of The Turkey and Ecumenical Patriarchate Religious Freedom Act of 2021. We commend Congresswoman Maloney for her decades-long commitment to safeguarding the rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and in the wake of the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, it is right and necessary to have a strong and bipartisan response from Congress. This legislation meets this need,” said American Hellenic Institute (AHI) President Nick Larigakis.

“Turkey perpetually suppresses the religious freedom and human rights of its minority populations with impunity. The Turkey and Ecumenical Patriarchate Religious Freedom Act of 2021 is important bipartisan legislation that will hold Turkey accountable for its intolerance and abysmal religious freedom record. AHEPA applauds and proudly supports the legislation introduced by U.S. Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Gus Bilirakis. I commend them for their leadership to recognize the United States can do more to hold Turkey accountable for its persecution of religious minorities by adopting the recommendations presented in the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) 2021 report on Turkey,” said AHEPA Supreme President George Horiates.

“Congresswoman Maloney has long recognized that Turkey’s oppression of the Ecumenical Patriarchate threatens the very existence of Christianity in both Turkey and the greater Middle East. The Biden Administration should follow the principled stance of Congresswoman Maloney on this issue. President Biden, who also has a strong record on the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, should build upon the precedent of the Pastor Brunson case and make it clear to Ankara that there will be consequences for its continued oppression of Christian minorities,” said Endy Zemenides, Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.

Joining Representatives Maloney and Bilirakis as original cosponsors of the resolution are Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Dina Titus (D-NV), John Sarbanes (D-MD), Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY), David Cicilline (D-RI), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and Brad Sherman (D-CA).

Background

Although the Constitution of Turkey provides for freedom of religion, President Erdoğan and his government continue to violate the religious freedoms of Greek Orthodox Christians, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its spiritual leader Bartholomew I, who represents more than 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) cemented international religious freedom as a U.S. foreign policy priority and established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which monitors and produces annual reports on religious freedom conditions in foreign countries.

In its 2021 Annual Report, the USCIRF stated that “religious freedom in Turkey continued to follow a troubling trajectory” and recommended that Turkey be included on the Special Watch List “for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom,” the same recommendation it made in 2020.

The bipartisan Turkey and Ecumenical Patriarchate Religious Freedom Act of 2021 would hold Turkey accountable for its campaign of religious discrimination and uphold our nation’s commitment to defending international religious freedom by:

  • Expressing the sense of Congress that putting Turkey on the Special Watch List would be a powerful and effective tool in highlighting the abuses of religious freedom in Turkey and against the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and that the President should, in accordance with the USCIRF’s recommendation, include Turkey on the Special Watch List;
  • Requiring the President — if the President ignores the USCIRF Annual Report’s recommendation to include Turkey on the Special Watch List — to submit a report to Congress that contains a detailed justification on the decision to ignore the USCIRF’s recommendation; and
  • Requiring the Secretary of State to submit a report to Congress on the State Department’s policy for promoting religious freedom in Turkey, including a description of planned efforts to combat deteriorating conditions for religious freedom in Turkey, including diplomacy, foreign assistance, and other relevant efforts.

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