Pompeo meets Orthodox spiritual leader in Istanbul

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, speaks with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, before departing the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Pompeo's stop in Turkey is focused on promoting religious freedom and fighting religious persecution, which is a key priority for the U.S. administration, officials said. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

ISTANBUL – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians on Tuesday during a short trip to Turkey that raised the ire of Turkish officials and included no meetings with any of them.

Pompeo, who is on a seven-country tour of Europe and the Middle East, tweeted pictures of him being greeted by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the leader of around 300 million Orthodox Christians, after being shown around the Patriarchate. He also met with the apostolic nuncio to Turkey, Archbishop Paul Russell.

The talks were to center on religious freedoms in Turkey, which has angered Ankara and prompted officials to call on Washington to focus on human rights violations in the United States.

Last week, Turkey issued a sharply-worded statement criticizing Pompeo’s plans and said Washington should “look at the mirror” and deal with issues such as racism, Islamophobia and hate crimes.

But the talks went ahead, and Pompeo on Tuesday tweeted that “as leader of the Orthodox world” Bartholomew “is a key partner as we continue to champion religious freedom around the globe.”

Wearing an American-flag face mask, Pompeo later toured the nearby Rustem Pasha Mosque, which was built by the Ottoman architect Sinan and is known for its elaborate blue-and-white tilework. His wife, Susan, wore a mask and also a headscarf during the tour in line with Muslim traditions.

The trip comes amid already frayed ties between the two NATO allies over a series of issues, even though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump have maintained friendly personal ties.

Those include Turkey’s decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft system, which Washington says is a threat to its F-35 fighter aircraft. Washington has kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program and has also threatened to sanction the country.