Remarks by Consul General Charles F. Hunter at a Banquet Hosted by the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, the National Philoptochos Society, and AHEPA

Your Eminence Metropolitan Demetrios of America, Your Eminences and Graces, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good evening.  It is a pleasure to be here tonight to share in your historic pilgrimage, and to have witnessed with you the meeting of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew with His Holiness Pope Francis.

Before beginning I would like to thank the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the National Philoptochos Society, and AHEPA for inviting me to speak this evening.  I am grateful for the opportunity to join you and to reaffirm the value the United States places on its relationships with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and with the Vatican.

As all of you know, the United States was founded upon the principle of freedom of religion, which is enshrined in our Constitution and expressed in our foreign policy.  In order to protect religious freedom around the world, we must uphold our commitment to respecting and defending the rights of religious communities, especially communities that are endangered by regional conflicts.  Those commitments – embodied in agreements we, Turkey and our many partners and allies have all signed up to – are more important than ever today, given the rise of the so-called Islamic State not terribly far from where we sit tonight.  It will require flexibility, resolve and collaborative effort to realize President Obama’s goal of “degrading and eventually destroying” ISIL.

Nurturing the partnership necessary to defeat this menace is a top priority for Ambassador John Bass, who sends his sincere regrets that he was unable to join you this evening.  As you probably are aware, he joined Vice President Biden in a meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch last Sunday, where they discussed religious freedom and interfaith dialogue.

In pursuit of our shared goals, we believe that the international community’s formal commitments to human rights and religious freedoms must serve as reference points on our common journey.  While no one country can claim to have perfected the answer to all religious freedom issues, we can compare progress to the ideals collectively agreed to in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Helsinki Final Act, and, in the case of Turkey and our European friends, the European Convention on Human Rights.

Signing these documents does not and must not grant immunity from public or private criticism.  The United States is no exception, and taking seriously the honest criticism of friendly nations has made us, ultimately, a stronger country.  A recent EU progress report on Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership, should, I believe, be taken in this same spirit.  Similarly, our annual observations in the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report should be viewed as rooted in the belief that governments can best protect the well-being and prosperity of their societies by allowing religious freedom and democratic institutions to flourish, and by using the rule of law to protect individuals’ right to worship freely.

During his visit to Ankara in 2009, President Obama noted, “Democracies cannot be static – they must move forward.”  He added, “Freedom of religion and expression lead to a strong and vibrant civil society that only strengthens the state, which is why steps like reopening the Halki Seminary will send such an important signal inside Turkey and beyond.”

Ambassador Bass has already made it clear that the United States is committed to being Turkey’s partner every step of the way in making full equality, freedom and respect for all citizens — regardless of ethnicity, religion or any other distinction — a reality in Turkey.  Echoing President Obama’s views, he has advocated not just reinforcing democracy but also allowing more space for religious expression.  The visit last week by Vice President Biden and his call on the Ecumenical Patriarch underscore our determination to continue to push for full legal recognition for all of Turkey’s religious communities, and our belief that such recognition makes Turkey stronger.

The crisis unfolding in Iraq and Syria, displacing communities that have been an integral part of this region’s history for millennia, has vast implications for the security and well-being of this part of the world and beyond.  It is a manifestation of the common challenge I spoke of before, and highlights the need for people of different faiths to be able to work together.  Our hope is that by coming together in creating a more secure, democratic, and prosperous region, we will offer a future brighter than the present, and in turn preserve the unique and priceless religious diversity of the region.

Thank you all for your own efforts to further that vision, and again for the opportunity to speak with you this evening.