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Opinion: Fake News or a Captive Patriarch in Turkey?

What’s really happening in Istanbul? A largely un-reported public expression of support of a violent military operation by Turkey by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew— the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians— is raising eyebrows.

Bartholomew went on the public record with an open letter he wrote to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressing his solidarity with Turkey’s anti-Kurdish military incursion into Syrian territory.

“Your determined attitude in strictly rejecting any association of terrorism with religion is being reflected on to world opinion,” the Istanbul-based Bartholomew told Erdogan in an open letter.

“We pray that you and the Turkish armed forces will achieve success and that Operation Olive Branch will, as its title promises, bring peace to this area.”

The letter, published by Turkey’s Hurriyet daily newspaper added, perhaps as a consolation to potential critics, that the Church hasn’t forgotten about those displaced by war.

“As the tradition of our church, we are always praying for our state, the health of our leaders, and the welfare and happiness of our people. We have not forgotten about the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced because of conflicts in our neighbors in the south, especially in Syria,” his statement said.

In an effort to ascertain whether or not the strange show of support by a respected international church leader of a violent incursion into another nation’s sovereign territory was, in fact, real— or “fake news,” we reached out to our contacts at the Ecumenical Patriarchate and received a copy of the letter that was dated January 25, 2018 and addressed to the Turkish President.

In another development, a few weeks after Bartholomew’s public display of support for Erdogan’s aggression in Afrin, Syria, which has been marred by dozens of deaths of civilians and soldiers alike, he (again) went on the public record to applaud Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party for their wonderful treatment of minorities, namely the Greek Orthodox minority.

According to the newspaper Daily Sabah, Bartholomew joined acting head of the Armenian Patriarchate and representatives of other minorities in a meeting with Şeref Malkoç, Turkey’s chief ombudsman.

Both religious leaders in Turkey spoke of a shift in freedoms, after decades of suppression.

Applauding Erdogan’s government, Bartholomew said that “Unlike the past, we can easily contact the representatives of the state, the government and convey to them our problems. This was not the case before, when the minorities were afraid of openly expressing their problems.”

Aram Ateşyan, the acting Armenian Patriarch said that his community was deprived of many rights, “until the AK Party came to power.”

The hypothetical questions are many.

How is it possible for a religious leader of Bartholomew’s magnitude and stature, who has been greeted as a head of state in nations throughout the West, to publicly support the violent invasion of Syria’s Kurdish territory by an authoritarian President whose actions have alienated him from much of the West?

Furthermore, seeing his own flock’s dwindling numbers and empty churches in and around Istanbul, what would motivate Bartholomew to openly praise a President and his political party whose policies over the years have led to the near-decimation of the Greek Orthodox community and has restricted its religious freedoms to the point that the U.S. State Department and numerous global watchdog groups have vehemently criticized Turkey’s treatment of religious minorities?

“Many governments around the world used discriminatory laws to deny their citizens freedom of religion or belief,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking about the State Department’s latest report on religious freedom. “No one should have to live in fear, worship in secret, face discrimination because of their beliefs.”

The report singled out Turkey, China and Saudi Arabia as major violators of religious freedom.

The last hypothetical question must be– is Bartholomew being forced to express his support for Erdogan and his brutal regime so publicly to protect his own survival?

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