Archbishop Elpidophoros, the Turkish-born head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, has caused an international stir amongst governments in Greece and Cyprus, as well as amongst his own faithful after appearing at a function in New York organized and attended by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Justifying his own attendance at the function — the inauguration of a new Turkish center in New York City — Archbishop Elpidophoros tweeted that he “congratulated Pres. Erdogan on the opening of the Turkevi Center,” adding that he always insists “on the importance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the re-opening of the Halki Theological Schooland supporting the rights of religious minorities of Turkey.”
But his attendance at the controversial event, which was boycotted by many national delegations as well as most mainstream American Jewish leaders, included Ersin Tatar — the illegitimate leader of the breakaway Turkish state in northern Cyprus which only Turkey recognizes.
Elpidophoros’ decision to attend the event led to the cancellation of visits to the Archdiocese headquarters by both the President of the Republic of Cyprus Nikos Anastasiades and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Both the Greek and Cypriot Consul Generals were noticeably absent from a Metropolis of New Jersey dinner at which the Archbishop was present Monday evening.
A source in Greece’s foreign ministry that did not want to be named since they weren’t authorized to speak on the topic said that the matter angered the highest levels of the Greek government, particularly in the ranks of the foreign ministry.
“This was frowned upon by the relevant political leadership in Greece,” our contact said in a telephone conversation, adding that “clearly this was a provocative move by the archbishop to firm up his own position with the Turkish leadership and nothing to do with his ministry or representation of Greek Orthodox faithful.”
The decision to attend by Elpidophoros was perceived by many as a strategic move to remain in good graces with Turkey’s leadership as he eyes the position of Ecumenical Patriarch, which the Turkish government must approve.
But it has clearly backfired, as his participation in the event has also angered many of his own faithful in the Greek American community.
A strongly worded joint statement by the International Coordinating Committee Justice for Cyprus (PSEKA) and the Chicago-based Hellenic American Leadership Council expressed “disappointment” at Elpidophoros’ attendance at the event, which they called a “disingenuous charm offensive.”
The full statement is here.
The Federation of Cypriot American Organizations also expressed regret and disappointment in a statement by its leadership.
The unprecedented uproar comes with the realization that some of the community’s worst fears have materialized. That the Ecumenical Patriarchate — and, as a result, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese — was in part being held hostage by Ankara was not only an “open secret,” but very often a cause for sympathy and for granting Church authorities more leeway to not openly promote the priorities of their flock in the United States.
But many in the community — and among non-Greek allies — see the archbishop’s latest actions as actively siding against the community’s and Hellenism’s priorities and passions.
During a presentation at the In Defense of Christians 2021 Summit, Dr. Aykan Erdemir of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies — a former Turkish parliamentarian known for his advocacy of Turkey’s religious minorities and the Ecumenical Patriarchate — spoke at length about how the Erdogan years have “fundamentally reframed” the nature of “political and practical belonging of [Turkey’s] non-Muslims among the Turkish polity.”
“We are transitioning to an era of ‘captured communities’,” Erdemir said. “I characterize what came before as [an era of] excluded communities, discriminated against communities and targeted communities. But ‘captured communities’ in my mind represents a more advanced form of discrimination and subjugation in that these communities are now asked to be active agents in their own subjugation and accomplices in the whitewashing of the regime’s atrocities.”
Endy Zemenides, the Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, spoke on the same panel as Dr. Erdemir and argued that Erdogan is trying to expand his “captured communities” approach overseas, specifically pointing out Archbishop Elpidophoros may be a result of that strategy.
“Historically, the Archdiocese and the community organizations most active on national issues have differed over ‘acts of omission,'” Zemenides said in comments exclusive to The Pappas Post. “This week’s ‘act of commission’ is far more concerning, especially that it came despite multiple warnings from the press and even Greek diplomats that the archbishop was walking into an untenable situation.”
Aram Hamparian, the Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America, also spoke to The Pappas Post about the Turkevi Center controversy.
“With Turkey backsliding so very quickly on religious freedom, human rights and the abuse of our communities, those in positions of spiritual or secular leadership must remain on guard — exercising special vigilance against being recruited, knowingly or not, into Erdogan’s relentless PR campaign to use Christian and other minority props to misrepresent Turkey as an open and tolerant country,” Hamparian said.
Archbishop Elpidophoros may hope that this controversy fades away, but it won’t. And relations between the Archdiocese and the community may be changed forever because of this.
In a Facebook post on Thursday, the archbishop shared a statement (in Greek) in response to the backlash. The statement (translated from Greek) follows:
As a Greek from Istanbul, my family and I have experienced the terrible consequences of being uprooted from our ancestral homes, like many of my compatriots have, but also like the Imbrians and Tenedians, due to another escalation of the Cyprus issue in the 1970s. I grew up with this pain, which is why I understand the pain of our Cypriot brothers, as well as their feelings and reactions. I consider them expressions of pain of people who lost everything: belongings, homelands, dreams, family, relatives.
Therefore, I want to declare to everyone that my presence at Monday’s event could never be a recognition of a disaster, a refugee, an occupation. My presence has always had the same constant orientation: honest and courageous dialogue, for a future with peace and protection of religious freedom. We are all united in defending our national interests, each in their own way and role. But united, committed to the same goal.
I sincerely regret the pain I inadvertently caused to my Cypriot and Greek-American brothers, especially to my beloved flock. I pray for a just and lasting solution to be found in the martyrdom of Cyprus, as the Cypriot people expect it to be, based on international law and the protection of human rights, in accordance with UN resolutions, and I work for this.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has stood for a century with Hellenism everywhere, defending its expectations. Our unity is my ministry and my duty.
Featured image: Office of the Presidency of Turkey via Facebook
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