Athenagoras: The Apostle of America to Orthodoxy


 

Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras

In a previous article, I shared some of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras’ declarations of loyalty to the United States, documented in U.S. State Department files from 1950-51. Thanks to Aram Sarkisian, I have since obtained many more State Dept. documents from the rest of the 1950s. In two of these reports, from 1953 and 1957, Patriarch Athenagoras expressed his loyalty to the United States even more strongly than before, to the point that the U.S. consuls on both occasions found Athenagoras’ words to be remarkable.

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In a report dated April 10, 1953 [click here to view the original], the new U.S. consul in Istanbul, Robert Macatee, wrote this regarding his first meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras:

Upon the occasion of my first official call upon the Oecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras on April 1, the Patriarch spent much of his time in expressing his love and admiration for the United States and all things our country represents. He went so far as to state that the cornerstone of the policy which he had set for himself as Patriarch was to advance American ideals. His expressions of admiration for the United States were at times so unrestrained as to become almost embarrassing. I could not help feeling that if, as a Turkish citizen, his feelings are as freely expressed to non-Americans, he will become labelled as a sort of professional pro-American, that his influence in Turkey and among the Orthodox will be consequently diminished, and that to some his utterances will be considered merely the repetition of American propaganda. I understand that in some quarters his efforts have already been discounted for this reason and that the Department is aware of this. I would therefore be inclined to recommend that we do what we can to encourage a note of subtlety in the Patriarch’s expressions of his very understandable pro-American sentiments, and that our future relations with him should be conducted with such discretion as to avoid having him too closely associated with us.

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Several years later, another U.S. consul, Robert Miner, recorded a meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras held at the Phanar on October 11, 1957 [click here to view the original]. In his cover letter to his report, Consul General Miner wrote, “Perhaps the most notable remark was the Patriarch’s strongly worded reiteration that he and his office were always at the disposition of the State Department to further in any way possible the foreign policy objectives of the United States.” Here is the section of the report to which Miner refers:

I called on the Patriarch, Athenagoras, at my request, to inform him that I was departing for the United States and would carry any messages he wished to the State Department. He replied by reiterating that he and his office were always at the disposition of the State Department to further in any way possible the foreign policy objectives of the U.S. Government. He amplified this remark by saying that he would personally undertake any mission or dispatch any of his clergymen anywhere he could to perform any task that would facilitate U.S. objectives. Although he has made similar remarks in the past, he was more emphatic and specific on this occasion.

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While the consuls were amazed at Patriarch Athenagoras’ loyalty to the U.S. government, Athenagoras himself was just being consistent — in 1942, he told the OSS (predecessor to the CIA), “Every one under my order is under yours. You may command them for any service you require. There will be no questions asked and your directions will be executed faithfully.” And in a separate letter to the head of the OSS the same year, “I am ready though to submit myself to any duty and to make every possible sacrifice for our beloved Country, which is fighting for Universal freedom and justice and for the New Day which is to come.”

I’m still at an early stage in my research, but throughout all the documents I have read, Patriarch Athenagoras comes across as a true believer in America, a man who believed deeply in a divinely-appointed, almost messianic destiny for the United States — to use Athenagoras’ own expression from 1951: “the mission which had been given it by God to give freedom, prosperity and happiness to all people.”

At this point, then, it’s my opinion that Athenagoras should not be treated as some kind of U.S. puppet, as just another world leader under the sway of America in a proxy front in the Cold War. Athenagoras’ loyalty to the U.S. was genuine, born not out of dependence on the U.S. but out of a deeply-held faith in America and a passionate love for America. If St. Innocent and St. Raphael were Apostles of the Gospel of Orthodoxy to America, then Patriarch Athenagoras was as much an Apostle of the Gospel of America to Orthodoxy.

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