Remarks by Ambassador Pyatt at the 3rd International Conference on Religious Diplomacy
January 11, 2022
Thank you Professor Prodromou. Nice to see my dear friends and colleagues Thanasis Martinos and former Minister Koumoutsakos. I want to start by thanking Loukas and the Institute of Foreign Affairs, the Capodistrian University, the Archdiocese of Athens and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for welcoming me and for organizing this International Conference on Religious Diplomacy.
This is the third time that I have spoken at this conference, and it reflects both my longevity here in Athens but also the importance the US government attaches to issues of the Orthodox Church and religious freedom in general. .
Having served in Athens for over five years now, one of the things I have the most enjoyed was 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 in Chania, the flying pots on Saturday morning in Corfu or the incredible Easter morning lamb.
This is an important set of topics for me personally. I also want to say to the summit how much I have admired the leadership role of the Greek Orthodox Church as we strive to meet the challenge of the global pandemic and Covid-19. I especially want to congratulate Archbishop Ieronymos for continuing to speak so regularly about the importance of immunization, which is so important in stopping this global pandemic.
It is particularly useful that the conference this year focuses on the sacred mountain, Mount Athos, which I had the honor to visit in 2018. I still remember as if it was yesterday the atmosphere of the morning services at Vatopedi or the astonishing sight of the cliff-side monastery of Simonopetra, which seems to balance and defy gravity on top of its rock.
And what I will also treasure more than anything else is the memory of the conversations I had, especially the visits to some of the hermitages and the skites, talking with monks who live alone, worshiping each day with the nature as the only companion.
The reason I visited Mount Athos, along with many of my colleagues from the United States Embassy and senior officials from the United States Department of State, is both to better understand this center of the Orthodox faith, but also to signal our strong support for religious freedom more broadly. Freedom of religion is at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, enshrined in our First Amendment to the Constitution, ensuring that all religions are respected equally. And literally every day the United States welcomes new immigrants of all faiths.
Freedom of religion is also important in Greece. It is one of the shared democratic values that unites our two societies. Indeed, in this Greek bicentennial year, it should be remembered that many patriots in the United States who supported the Greek Revolution did so for exactly these reasons.
When we visit Mount Athos, we not only respect its central role in global Orthodoxy, but also express our respect and support for the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church and the Holy Mountain, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. . By the way, I would like to send my best wishes to His Most Holiness for a speedy recovery from his recent experience with Covid. In November, I had the honor of meeting His Most Holiness again here in Athens, where we mainly talked about his recent visit to Kiev, Ukraine.
It should be noted that although the Russian Orthodox Church opposed the visit and severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Ukraine, His All Holiness chose a different path, continuing to commemorate the Russian Church and calling for reconciliation between the Churches in Ukraine. In this regard, the pastoral leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarch strengthens US 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 reading of the visit that President Biden underscored the importance of religious freedom as a basic 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 these issues have also figured prominently in the Ecumenical Patriarch’s conversations in Washington.
As recently as last week, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church celebrated the third anniversary of the reception of the Tomos of autocephaly from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. While in Kiev last summer, Secretary Blinken met Metropolitan Epiphanes and discussed the Tomos while on a tour of St. Michael. The secretary asserted that Ukraine’s right to freedom of religion was a basic human right, while Epiphanius voiced concerns about violations of religious freedom in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea under Russian control. Just last week in Washington, Secretary Blinken publicly and forcefully addressed the issue of Russian violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
As he said, and as I have personally witnessed, “in 2014 the Ukrainian people chose a democratic and European future for themselves. Russia responded by creating a crisis and invading. Since then, Russia has occupied Ukraine’s territory in Crimea and orchestrated a war in the eastern part of Ukraine – with proxies it directs, trains, supplies, and funds – that has killed nearly 14,000 people and redrawn the borders of Ukraine by force. Beyond its military aggression, Moscow has also worked to undermine Ukraine’s democratic institutions. He interfered in politics and the elections in Ukraine; it blocked energy and trade to intimidate its rulers and put pressure on its citizens; he used propaganda and disinformation to sow distrust; and he launched cyber attacks against critical infrastructure in the country.
For all of these reasons, the United States remains concerned that Moscow continues to try to foment instability and undermine the sovereignty of independent, majority Orthodox nations, including its efforts to overturn the historic Tomos grant by the Ecumenical Patriarch in the Church of Ukraine. Our own US Commission on International Religious Freedom has classified Russia as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.
More recently, on December 29, the Russian Orthodox Church announced that it would create its own Patriarchal Exarchate in Africa. After severing ties with the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa for supporting the autocephaly of the Church of Ukraine, Russian authorities are now urging around 100 Orthodox clergy in Africa to join their exarchate and to sign a pledge stating that “we are not doing this in pursuit of financial benefit.”
I recently had the opportunity and the honor to meet here in Athens the head of the Greek Orthodox Church of Africa, Patriarch Theodoros. I found him deeply inspiring, both for his faith and for his passion for the African people. We have talked at length about how outside forces are trying to harm the Orthodox Church in Africa for following traditions that have been in place for centuries.
I can assure you that the United States will continue to work with Greece and our other partners in the region to support religious freedom against external attacks. When religious freedom flourishes, nations reap the rewards: terrorism and violent extremism decline as economies grow, civil society strengthens, and opportunities multiply.
And while today’s conference focuses on Orthodoxy, Greece is fortunate to have a rich tapestry of religious diversity, including one of Europe’s oldest Jewish communities, as well as communities Muslim women living in northern Greece. We congratulate Greece and Deputy Prime Minister Pikramenos in particular for assuming the presidency this year of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, honoring the deep history of Jews in Thessaloniki and around Greece. .
Let us never forget that of the roughly 50,000 Jews who lived there in Thessaloniki, only 2,000 survived the Holocaust. Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, whose company produced the life-saving Covid vaccines, is the son of two such survivors. My friend Moses Elisaf, the mayor of Ioannina, is a proud Romaniot Jew, a community that has lived in Greece for thousands of years. The United States also continues to strongly support the efforts of the Greek government to build a world-class Holocaust museum in Thessaloniki.
And we support the efforts of the Greek government, such as those of Foreign Minister Dendias, to highlight the freedoms and cultures of the Greek Muslim minority in Thrace. Last year Greece opened the first government-funded public mosque in Europe. We also commend Greece for continuing to demonstrate its support for religious freedom around the world.
We congratulate the Thrace all-party committee in parliament headed by Dora Bakoyannis and hope that some of its recommendations on how to improve the economic situation in East Macedonia and Thrace, including for the Muslim minority, can be implemented in order to to strengthen regional security.
In conclusion, I would like to congratulate the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Greece for organizing this conference again this year. Just like the monastic community on Mount Athos remains a unique spiritual place where the rich Orthodox tradition of Greece is preserved, as is the The United States’ support for religious freedom is strong and unwavering. We will move forward together.
Thank you for having me and I look forward to the conversation. Polite Efcharisto.