U.S. lawmakers call for sanctions on Turkey for repeated violations of religious freedom

A group of U.S. lawmakers published a letter on Thursday calling on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to work with global partners in a sustained and coordinated effort to hold accountable the Turkish government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for repeated violations of religious freedom and human rights.

“Despite international condemnation, the state of Turkey continues to engage in chronic, egregious, systematic violations of the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate,” the members of congress said. “In addition, the Turkish state continues to reject the legal status and the identity of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”  

The harshly-worded letter argued that Turkey rejecting the ecumenicity of the Patriarchate violates not only the freedom of conscience, belief, and religion for all Greek Orthodox Christian citizens of Turkey, but of the 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide who fall under the spiritual leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

U.S. Congressmen John Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) led the bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Dina Titus, Charlie Crist, Chris Pappas, Nicole Malliotakis and Victoria Spartz. 

The letter also touched on the conversion of Byzantine cathedral Hagia Sophia back into a mosque from its previous status as a museum, and said “the state of Turkey’s arbitrary conversion of the Hagia Sophia to an active mosque in July 2020 is a violation of Turkey’s obligations under international law and, specifically as a signatory to the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage”.

“Serious transgressions against a religious symbol of the stature of our Ecumenical Patriarch and Patriarchate must carry major consequences,” the lawmakers said.

In March, over 170 members of the U.S. Congress, including prominent leadership, released a letter urging U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to hold Turkey accountable for its “gross violation of human rights” and “democratic backsliding”.

Legislation to hold Turkey accountable for violating the religious freedoms of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Greek Orthodox Christians, and other religious minorities, was introduced in the U.S. Congress in early May.