ISTANBUL — It’s not every day that the secretary of state gets in front of the cameras with no shoes. But Mike Pompeo was touring Istanbul’s tile-bedecked Rustem Pasha Mosque, which requires visitors to leave their footwear at the door before they tread on its soft blue carpet.
He had just visited the Patriarchal Church of St. George — the global seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church — and met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in an adjacent building earlier Tuesday. He would later sit for a meeting with Archbishop Paul Russell, the Vatican’s envoy to Turkey.
These visits had a subtle but unmistakable purpose. Pompeo has staked out his advocacy for international religious freedom as one of the defining features of his time at Foggy Bottom — a mission that he took to Istanbul, on the latest leg of a post-election, multi-country tour.
The U.S. government has considered religious freedom to be a “universal human right” since 1998, when Congress passed legislation establishing mechanisms to promote it. Since taking the reins at the State Department, Pompeo has built on that foundation, unveiling a flurry of initiatives toward that end.
Among the most notable of these is the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, an ambitious effort to coordinate international action.
There’s also the Commission on Unalienable Rights, which seeks to ground America’s promotion of global human rights — with religious freedom at the top of the list — in the country’s founding documents. The commission was met with criticism from certain advocacy organizations because, they say, the commission’s emphasis places abortion, gender equality, and sexual orientation in a second tier of rights. The State Department and defenders of the panel, which unveiled its first report in Philadelphia this past summer, counter that it incorporates the views of participants with different perspectives.
The choice of Istanbul as one foreign location in which to showcase this religious-freedom agenda comes at a critical time, following the Erdogan government’s highly controversial July decision to convert the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque. The landmark building, which has changed hands several times over the course of its storied millennium-and-a-half existence, has long been a symbol of religious and cultural diversity, and Orthodox Christians ascribe it a special significance as the former seat of the church.
The Orthodox church and other minority religions in Turkey complain that they have faced disparate treatment by a government that favors the country’s Muslim majority. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan views himself as the leader of Muslims worldwide, and the government estimates that 99 percent of the Turkish population is Muslim.
This presents a mixed bag. On the one hand, Turkey has assumed a special responsibility to assist Rohingya Muslims fleeing widespread violence in Myanmar and negotiate a solution to the crisis. But Turkish authorities have also detained Uyghur individuals in the country, sending them to deportation centers, according to NPR. And as Beijing’s systematic repression of the Islamic faith in Xinjiang continues apace, Ankara has remained silent.
Although the State Department does not list Turkey as a “country of particular concern” in the 2019 version of its report on international religious freedom, the section on the country lists the numerous ways in which the Turkish government restricts the rights of religious, non-Muslim minorities.
Meanwhile, these policies have dovetailed with Turkey’s growing assertiveness on the world stage and a foreign policy increasingly independent of the United States, causing some headaches in Washington. After Ankara purchased Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in 2019, the Trump administration canceled Turkey’s participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and members of Congress placed holds on arms sales to the country, which is a member of NATO.
This context raised questions about Pompeo’s itinerary on Monday. During his stop in Istanbul, he did not meet with any Turkish officials, which some interpreted as a snub.
However, a senior State Department official dismissed the suggestion in a briefing with reporters, stating that the absence of any such sessions should not be read as anything other than a scheduling issue stemming from the travel plans of Pompeo and Erdogan. “So this is the be-all and the end-all of this question,” the official said.
State Department officials also pushed back on the idea that the itinerary was designed to put Ankara on notice for its handling of religious-freedom issues.
“There’s nothing antagonizing about speaking about the inalienable right of religious freedom,” another senior official said during the same briefing.