Turkey must reopen Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox Halki seminary and strengthen freedoms of expression, religion and other fundamental human rights, a senior Washington official has said ahead of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey this week.
Speaking during a Nov. 28 conference call with reporters, Biden’s national security advisor, Tony Blinken, encouraged Ankara to reopen Heybeliada island’s Halki seminary, which has remained closed since 1971.Blinken also criticized the number of Turkish journalists who are currently behind bars.
Despite Blinken’s comments on Ankara’s domestic policies, the adviser lauded Turkey’s regional role, saying the country set an example for neighbors currently engaged in transition and played “a strong leadership role” in the Middle East.
“It’s hard to think of an international issue where we don’t have close cooperation or collaboration or consultation at the very least with Turkey, and there’s a lot on the agenda right now,” Blinken said. “It’s very encouraging to see Turkey play a strong leadership role. We’ve seen that in Syria. We’ve seen that in Libya. We’ve seen that in Egypt, in Afghanistan, in NATO. And that’s something that is in the interest of the United States.”
Blinken said the vice president’s talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül, which start Dec. 1, would focus on ways of expanding trade, cooperation against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the uprisings in Syria and other Arab nations.
“Turkey has a very important story to tell as a country that can set an example for other countries that are making transitions in the Arab world, in the Islamic world, in North Africa,” he said.
Biden’s agenda will also cover Turkey’s troubled ties with Israel and Armenia, the Cyprus issue and the situation in Afghanistan. “We believe that opportunities are there for the two countries [Turkey and Israel] to fully repair relations and move forward,” Blinken said.
Blinken pledged continued U.S. backing for Turkey against the PKK, which is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey and much of the international community, and lauded Turkey’s decision to install a radar as part of NATO’s missile shield project while also denouncing recent threats by Iran to the installation if attacked.
“Making threatening statements doesn’t serve anyone’s purpose, least of all the Iranians. The fact of the matter is that the world is deeply concerned with Iran’s activities in a number of areas starting with their nuclear program,” Blinken said.
Following his talks in Ankara, Biden will travel on to Istanbul to meet with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I and address a Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Istanbul on Dec. 3, which the U.S. hopes will help promote a merchant class that can help deliver economic and political change in the Arab world.
“This summit really comes at a critical moment in the Middle East and North Africa. We’ve seen that millions of people have been calling out for not only political freedom but also economic opportunity and progress,” Blinken said.
The gathering will bring together entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, social entrepreneurship leaders and government officials from the Middle East and North Africa.