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I have always found the U.S. policy establishment and media culpable for Turkey’s horrid record on human rights, religious freedom and regional stability. State Department and National Security Council officials, The New York Times, think tanks would all give Turkey pass after pass (on its invasion and continued occupation of Cyprus; its blockade of Armenia and continued denial of the Armenian genocide; on violating Greece’s territorial airspace; on the treatment of Christians in Turkey) and argue that Turkey was headed in the right direction. When it came to Turkey, geopolitical positioning trumped values, the rule of law, and even reality.
Over the past month or so, perhaps moved by the Christmas spirit, I started feeling sorry for these enablers of Turkey. Decades of bending over backwards (and in some cases, just plain bending over) for Turkey’s sake had now blown up in their faces. Turkey, and its once celebrated Erdogan/Davutoglu “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy went from a key cog to regional stability to a leading contributor to regional volatility. Tayyip Erdogan went from the much feted “democratic reformer” to an autocrat par excellence, citing Adolph Hitler as a political model and competing with Vladimir Putin over who can be more dangerous to journalists. With Turkey unreliable in the war against ISIS, with human rights and democracy backsliding in the country that the U.S. so long held up as the model for Muslim countries, with Turkey resuming its war against the Kurds, invading northern Iraq and raising tensions between NATO and Russia, I started to get the feeling that the U.S. foreign policy establishment was finally getting fed up with Ankara. Maybe now Washington would finally start being honest about Turkey and not to the detriment of the latter, but in order to bring it in line with the community of nations (NATO, the European Union) that Turkey so wants to fit in among. No more papering over inconvenient facts, no more celebrating statements and gestures without substance. A real grown up relationship.
Then, just as the holidays drew to a close, as some celebrated Epiphany and others Christmas, one diplomat’s tweets made all my sympathy dissipate. (As an aside, the State Department may want to institute some Twitter training for its diplomats in Greece and Cyprus; they apparently don’t know how to avoid trouble on social media). Retweeting a story about the first Epiphany services in Smyrna since 1922, David Pearce — the United States Ambassador to Greece — told his followers that this was a development that was “worth noting” and that “from such things larger progress often flows.” Maybe this is true, but Ambassador Pearce is talking about Turkey. A Turkey that through a century of genocide, minority repression and ethnic cleansing has reduced its Christian populations from millions to thousands. A Turkey that has for over a decade failed to take a promised step towards greater religious freedom by opening Halki Theological Seminary. A Turkey whose leader lied to President Obama’s face about opening Halki, leaving President Obama to mark four years this March since announcing the impending opening of Halki with nothing happening afterwards.
More importantly, it is a Turkey marked by a severe backsliding in religious freedom that even the U.S. has noted with increasing concern over the past few years. In 2012, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that Turkey be designated a country of particular concern, the classification given to the world’s worst violators of religious freedom. After backlash from Turkey (and inaction by the State Department on the recommendation), USCIRF controversially upgraded Turkey’s status on religious freedoms in 2013 — a move that prompted strong dissent from among its membership. Perhaps realizing the absurdity of caving to Turkey’s pressure, USCIRF reversed itself in 2014 and placed Ankara back on the list of the world’s egregious religious rights violators, an action that it repeated in 2015 as well. USCIRF has made several recommendations in terms of what the U.S. government should press Turkey to do, including: open Halki, a longstanding ask by the Obama Administration and its predecessors that USCIRF repeated at the end of 2015; comply with European Court of Human rights rulings; permit religious communities to pick their own leaders (and thus cease influencing who may serve as the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church). You know what USCIRF’s recommendations don’t include? Cheerleading for an Epiphany service in Smyrna as if it is the beginning of greater religious freedom in Turkey.
When it comes to Turkey, Ambassador Pearce, the State Department, and the White House itself have all taken the approach of quiet diplomacy with Turkey. This has not only failed to yield “larger progress”, it has failed to yield any progress. Praising this Epiphany service without comment about the negative backdrop against which it occurred (I didn’t even discuss the threat to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque) makes the U.S. complicit in Turkey’s slow play in eliminating the last major remnants of Christianity in the country. In his last year in office, it is time for President Obama to recall the demand he made in his first year of office: open Halki Seminary. Then we will have something worth noting, something from which larger progress can flow.
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