Ambassador Pyatt’s Remarks at 3rd International Conference on Religious Diplomacy

13 January, 13:41
Ukraine and world
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U.S. Embassy in Athens published аmbassador Pyatt’s Remarks at 3rd International Conference on Religious Diplomacy

Athens, Greece

January 11, 2022

As Delivered

Thank you Professor Prodromou. Great to see my dear friends and colleagues Thanasis Martinos, and former minister Koumoutsakos. I want to start by thanking Loukas and the Foreign Affairs Institute, the Kapodistrian University, the Archdiocese of Athens, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for having me back and organizing this International Conference on Religious Diplomacy.

This is my third time speaking at this conference, and that reflects both my longevity here in Athens but also the importance that the U.S. government attaches to issues of the Orthodox Church and religious freedom more broadly.

Having served in Athens for more than five years now, one of the things I’ve most enjoyed has been learning and experiencing the celebrations and traditions of the Orthodox faith here in Greece, the central role the Church plays in Greek identity. Indeed, some of my fondest memories of my time here in Greece relate to religious holidays, especially Easter, whether it is the Epitaphios of Chania, the flying pots on Saturday morning in Corfu, or the amazing lamb of Easter morning.

This is an important set of topics for me personally. I also want to say at the top how much I have admired the leadership role of the Greek Orthodox Church as we work to meet the challenge of the global pandemic and Covid-19. I particularly want to congratulate Archbishop Ieronymos for continuing to speak out so regularly about the importance of vaccination, which is so important to halting this global pandemic.

It’s especially useful that the focus of the conference this year is the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, which I had the honor of visiting in 2018. I can still recall like it was yesterday the atmosphere of the morning services at Vatopedi or the amazing sight of the cliffside Monastery of Simonopetra, which seems to balance and defy gravity on top of its rock.

And what I will also cherish more than anything else is my memory of the conversations I had, in particular visits to the some of the hermitages and the sketes, speaking with monks who live on their own, worshiping every day with nature as their only companion.

The reason that I visited Mount Athos, along with many of my colleagues from the U.S. Embassy and senior leaders from the U.S. Department of State, is both to understand better this center of the Orthodox faith but also to signal our strong support for religious freedom more broadly. Freedom of religion stands at the core of U.S. foreign policy, enshrined in our First Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing that all religions are respected equally. And literally every single day, the United States welcomes new immigrants of every religion.

Freedom of religion is important in Greece as well. It is one of the shared democratic values that link our two societies. Indeed, in this year of the Greek bicentennial, it’s worth recalling that many patriots from the United States who supported the Greek revolution did so for exactly those reasons.

When we visit Mount Athos, we’re not only respecting its central role in global Orthodoxy, but also expressing our respect for and support to the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church and of the Holy Mountain, his All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. As an aside, I want to extend my very best wishes to his All-Holiness for a speedy recovery from his recent experience with Covid. In November, I was honored to meet again with his All-Holiness here in Athens, where we talked mainly about his then recent visit to Kyiv in Ukraine.

It is worth noting that although the Russian Orthodox Church opposed the visit and has broken ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate over Ukraine, his All-Holiness has chosen a different path, continuing to commemorate the Russian Church and calling for reconciliation among the churches in Ukraine. In this regard, the Ecumenical Patriarch’s pastoral leadership reinforces American diplomacy in support of Ukrainian sovereignty and national unity.

In October, the Ecumenical Patriarch also visited the United States for the first time in about a decade, where he met President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken, among many other American leaders. The White House noted in its official readout from that visit that President Biden emphasized the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right, as well as his personal and decades-long friendship with the Patriarch. And given the importance of developments in Ukraine, it is no surprise that those issues also figured prominently in the Ecumenical Patriarch’s conversations in Washington.

Just last week the Orthodox Church of Ukraine celebrated the three-year anniversary of receiving the Tomos of autocephaly from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. When he was in Kyiv last summer, Secretary Blinken met with Metropolitan Epiphanius and discussed the Tomos while touring St. Michael’s. The Secretary affirmed Ukraine’s right to religious freedom as a fundamental human right, while Epiphanius raised his concerns about the violations of religious freedom in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Russian controlled Crimea. Again last week in Washington, Secretary Blinken addressed publicly and forcefully the issue of Russian violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

As he said, and as I witnessed firsthand, “in 2014, the Ukrainian people chose a democratic and European future for themselves. Russia responded by manufacturing a crisis and invading. Ever since, Russia has occupied Ukraine’s territory in Crimea and has orchestrated a war in the eastern part of Ukraine – with proxies that it leads, trains, supplies, and finances – that has killed nearly 14,000 people and redrawn Ukraine’s borders by force. Beyond its military aggression, Moscow has also worked to undermine Ukraine’s democratic institutions. It has interfered in Ukraine’s politics and elections; it has blocked energy and commerce to intimidate its leaders and pressure its citizens; it has used propaganda and disinformation to sow distrust; and it has launched cyber-attacks on the country’s critical infrastructure.”

For all these reasons, the United States remains concerned that Moscow continues to try to foment instability and undermine the sovereignty of independent Orthodox-majority nations, including its efforts to reverse the Ecumenical Patriarch’s historic grant of Tomos to the Church of Ukraine. Our own U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has listed Russia as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.

Most recently, on December 29, the Russian Orthodox Church announced it would create its own patriarchal exarchate in Africa. After breaking ties with the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa for supporting autocephaly for the Church of Ukraine, Russian authorities are now prodding about 100 Orthodox clergy in Africa to join their exarchate and sign a pledge stating that “we are not doing so in pursuit of financial benefit.”

I recently had the opportunity and honor of meeting here in Athens the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in Africa, Patriarch Theodoros. I found him deeply inspiring, both for his faith and for his passion about the people of Africa. We talked at length about how outside forces are trying to damage the Orthodox church in Africa for following traditions which have been in place for centuries.

I can assure you that the United States will continue to work with Greece and our other partners around the region to support religious freedom against outside attacks. When religious freedom flourishes, nations reap the benefits: terrorism and violent extremism decrease while economies grow, civil society is strengthened, and opportunities expand.

And while today’s conference focuses on Orthodoxy, Greece is fortunate to have a rich tapestry of religious diversity, including one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe, as well as the Muslim communities who reside in northern Greece. We commend Greece and Deputy Prime Minister Pikramenos, in particular, for taking the presidency this year of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, honoring the profound history of the Jews in Thessaloniki and around Greece.

We must never forget that out of some 50,000 Jews who lived there in Thessaloniki, only 2,000 survived the Holocaust. Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, whose company has produced the life-saving Covid vaccines, is the son of two of those survivors. My friend Moses Elisaf, the mayor of Ioannina, is a proud Romaniote Jew, a community that have lived in Greece for thousands of years. The United States also continues strongly to support the Greek government’s efforts to build a world-class Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki.

And we support Greek government efforts, such as those of Foreign Minister Dendias, to highlight the freedoms and cultures of Greece’s Muslim minority in Thrace. Last year, Greece opened the first public, government-funded mosque in Europe. We also applaud Greece for continuing to demonstrate its support for religious freedom around the world.

We commend the inter-party Thrace Committee in parliament led by Dora Bakoyannis and hope that some of its recommendations on how to improve the economic situation in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace, including for the Muslim minority, can be implemented in order to bolster regional security.

In conclusion, I want to congratulate Foreign Affairs Greece for holding this conference again this year. Just as the monastic community on Mount Athos remains a uniquely spiritual place where Greece’s rich Orthodox tradition is preserved, so too the United States’ support for religious freedom stands firm and steadfast. We will move forward together.

Thank you for having me, and I look forward to the conversation. Efcharisto poli.