Biden offers support to Orthodox leader amid Turkey tensions

The Biden administration has had rocky relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who last week threatened to expel the US and other Western ambassadors over a statement on human rights.

FILE: US President Joe Biden (R) speaks with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prior to a plenary session of a NATO summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels, on 14 June 2021. Picture: AFP

WASHINGTON - US President Joe Biden's administration offered support Monday in meetings with the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians following scrutiny of Turkey's record.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, 81, went ahead with talks following a night in a Washington hospital after feeling unwell, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese said.

Bartholomew was holding a closed-door meeting with Biden after talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

"The United States stands strongly for the principle of religious freedom," Blinken said as he met Bartholomew.

The State Department said that the two discussed the status of the Halki seminary, formerly the main theological school for the Eastern Orthodox Church, which was closed under a Turkish law in 1971.

"Secretary Blinken reaffirmed that the reopening of the Halki seminary remains a continued priority for the Biden administration," a State Department statement said.

Bartholomew voiced gratitude for US support to the patriarchate and "its ideas and values which we try to protect, struggling at the same time to survive in our historic city, Istanbul."

The Biden administration has had rocky relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who last week threatened to expel the US and other Western ambassadors over a statement on human rights.

Bartholomew is a Turkish citizen and met with Turkey's ambassador to Washington. But Erdogan, whose roots are in Islamism, last year triggered outrage in Orthodox-dominated Greece by reconverting the Hagia Sophia - originally the Byzantine Empire's main cathedral - from a museum into a mosque.

Previous US president Donald Trump enjoyed warmer relations with Erdogan, but his administration made a point of championing religious freedom.

In an unusual move, Trump's secretary of state Mike Pompeo on his last international trip visited Istanbul to meet with Bartholomew and did not see Turkish officials.

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