Biden offers support to Orthodox leader amid Turkey tensions

Washington (AFP) – US President Joe Biden's administration offered support Monday in meetings with the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians following scrutiny of Turkey's record.

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Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, 81, went ahead with talks following a night in a Washington hospital after feeling unwell, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese said.

Bartholomew was holding a closed-door meeting with President Joe Biden after talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

"The United States stands strongly for the principle of religious freedom," Blinken said as he met Bartholomew.

Bartholomew voiced gratitude for US support to the patriarchate and "its ideas and values which we try to protect, struggling at the same time to survive in our historic city, Istanbul."

The Biden administration has had rocky relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who last week threatened to expel the US and other Western ambassadors over a statement on human rights.

Bartholomew is a Turkish citizen and met with Turkey's ambassador to Washington. But Erdogan, whose roots are in Islamism, last year triggered outrage in Orthodox-dominated Greece by reconverting Hagia Sophia, originally the Byzantine Empire's main cathedral, into a mosque from a museum.

Previous president Donald Trump enjoyed warmer relations with Erdogan but his administration made a point of championing religious freedom.

In an unusual move, Trump's secretary of state Mike Pompeo on his last international trip visited Istanbul to meet with Bartholomew and did not see Turkish officials.