Constantinople, Rome, and Washington: Deference and Indifference in US Relations with two Ancient Sees: Part One

Before arriving in Saudi Arabia on March 28 to personally assure Riyadh of Washington’s continued support for the world’s most oppressive and reactionary theocratic Islamic polity, President Barack Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican to discuss, among other issues, international religious freedom and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and beyond.  The irony was lost on the American media.

Generally, the media portrayed the papal-presidential conclave more as a glowing, much-anticipated, highly publicized meeting between two charismatic international celebrities, than as an introduction between two heads of state, each with enormous global power and influence.  Following a few obligatory pronouncements on peace, and after coming together on the importance of promoting awareness of the need to help the world’s poor, the pope and president politely found little else—certainly not in the spheres of culture, religion, and society—to agree on. 

The differences between the two leaders did not prevent the pope and president from moving beyond formal cordiality to a lighthearted rapport, launched by President Obama’s presentation of a deeply symbolic and thoughtful gift to Francis—a beautiful chest (filled with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden) made from reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary in Baltimore, site of the first Roman Catholic cathedral erected in the US. 

Upon meeting in the pope’s study, Pope Francis gave President Obama a restrained smile as they shook hands.  In an excited voice the president said, "It's wonderful meeting you. I'm a great admirer. Thank you, sir. Thank you."  Reiterating his deference, President Obama added, "It's a great honor.  I'm a great admirer.  Thank you so much for receiving me."  The pope responded with a simple “thank you.”  Shortly before his meeting, the president had lavished praise on Francis, telling members of the Italian press, "The Holy Father has inspired the peoples of the entire world—and me too—with his commitment to social justice and his message of love and compassion, especially for people who are the poorest and most vulnerable among us."  After his meeting with the pope, President Obama met briefly in Rome with both the president and prime minister of Italy, an event that drew virtually no American media interest.   

President Obama’s recent trip to the Vatican, where he had met Pope Benedict XVI in July 2009, marked his first meeting with Pope Francis but it was not his first meeting with a head of one of Christianity’s five ancient Patriarchal Sees.  In fact, President Obama met with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His All Holiness Bartholomew I, in April 2009.  Barack Obama’s meeting with Bartholomew was the byproduct of his first presidential trip abroad, in which he aimed to woo the predominantly Muslim societies of the Middle East, beginning with Turkey.  However, unlike his recent meeting with Pope Francis, President Obama’s first meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was not characterized by deference and excitement, lavish praise of Bartholomew for the Turkish press, or even the presentation of a gift.  In stark contrast to his meeting with Francis, the president treated his meeting with Bartholomew as a 9:45 AM working coffee break.         

To be fair to President Obama, his behavior towards the Ecumenical Patriarch was entirely consistent with that of his immediate predecessor.  Indeed, when President George W. Bush visited Turkey in June 2004, he refused, in deference to the wishes of the Turkish state, to meet with Bartholomew in the latter’s enclaved headquarters in the Phanar district of Istanbul.  Instead, Bush deigned to receive Bartholomew at a hotel, in a gathering that included other “religious community leaders” from Istanbul.  When President Obama finalized the agenda for his April 2009 trip to Turkey, his aides made it clear that, despite his original plans to meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch in the Phanar, President Obama would instead be willing to receive Patriarch Bartholomew in a hotel, at a gathering including other “religious community leaders” from Istanbul.

According to the official explanation for President Obama’s demeaning volte-face, severe constraints on the president’s very limited time in Turkey ultimately made it impossible for him to schedule a meeting at the Phanar with Patriarch Bartholomew.  This justification was incredulous.  Given President Obama’s allocation of several hours to a roundtable discussion with Turkish high school and college students, as well as other trivial public relations events, it is doubtful that the president’s aides could have not found the time in his schedule for a visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate—the ecclesiastical center of one of the world’s major religions, an ancient See for 300 million Orthodox Christians.

Many observers reasoned that President Obama’s obvious appeasement towards the Turkish state was neither surprising nor remarkable.  According to such views, the Obama administration’s early high-profile statements of concern for the plight of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, followed by an unwillingness to take seriously those pronouncements, is a practice that conforms to long-established US policy behavior.  After all, such a gull approach to the issues of state persecution and violations of religious and other civil freedoms facing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Orthodox Christians in Turkey represents continuity in Washington’s engagement with Ankara, at least since the administration of Richard Nixon and the foreign policy of Henry Kissinger.

Washington’s attitude towards the Ecumenical Patriarchate has not, however, been always defined by deference to Ankara.  Indeed, before the US became, for all practical purposes, the subservient partner in the Washington-Ankara axis, American policymakers did not view respect for the legal rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Orthodox Christians as irrelevant to, and incompatible with, the maintenance of a productive alliance with Turkey.  In fact, there was a time when US policymakers invested considerable value in and support for the welfare and vitality of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople—a subject this blog will address in its next essay.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

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