456. Memorandum From Harold Saunders of the National Security Council Staff to the Presidentʼs Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Ecumenical Patriarchate and Iakovos

Yesterday, Archbishop Iakovos sent Ambassador Bush a cable requesting his “immediate personal expression of protest to the United Nations in reaction to the unprecedented Turkish Government interference in the election of the Ecumenical Patriarch by virtue of their demands that the next Patriarch be approved by them and that elections be finalized within 72 hours.”2

The desirability of our continued non-involvement seems clear. The purpose of this memo is simply to give you the facts on the succession as they relate to Iakovosʼ approach.

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The understandings between Greece and Turkey on the continued existence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul are a spin-off of understandings stated in the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923. This provided, among other points, for the present Greek/Turkish border and for exchange of populations, including protection and rights of minorities which remained. The treaty does not mention the Patriarchate. However, the minutes of the Lausanne Conference do contain a discussion of the Patriarchate laying out Turkeyʼs strong opposition to its continued presence in Turkey but also the UK appeal that Turkey not remove it. Thus, it was permitted to remain but has been under strong Turkish surveillance and control, including the custom of Turk veto over the selection of a patriarch as had been the case under the Sultan since 1862.

The main Turkish point being asserted in this situation, therefore, is that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is a Turkish institution on Turkish soil and subject to Turkish law—not a Vatican with extraterritorial rights. The present episode began in 1970 when, in anticipation of Athenagorasʼ death and possibly the succession of another strong Patriarch, the Turkish government issued a memorandum setting forth guidelines for the selection of the new patriarch: The Holy Synod of bishops in the Patriarchate would convene, draw up a list of possible contenders within a set time and submit it to Istanbulʼs civilian Governor; he would edit it, removing offensive types and return it to the Synod. They would vote on remaining candidates which the Turks had approved.

This process has been going on since Athenagorasʼ funeral on Tuesday. We understand that the Holy Synod has submitted a list (which includes Meliton, the compromise candidate) to the Istanbul Governor after the Turks insisted they do so within 72 hours. The Turkish press says the Turks, after they edit the list, may be asking that the election take place within the next 72 hours. Finally, the Turk government has indicated publicly that if its election procedures are not followed it may have to appoint a new Patriarch though it has told our embassy in Ankara it wishes to avoid this.

This is the situation that Iakovos is reacting to. He claims the Turks cannot instruct the Church in election procedures which ordinarily would permit the Synod a much longer time to elect a new successor. Iakovos probably wants more time to lobby for support and the Turks want the matter to end quickly so that it does not become politicized. In any case, whatever the merits, Iakovos seems incorrect in saying that the Turkish governmentʼs involvement is “unprecedented.” Not only have they been involved in practice—they seem to have assured the election of Athenagoras in 1948 by pressing other candidates to stand aside. The problem today is that they are blocking Iakovos.

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Embassy Ankara says the Turks have told us they will insist on their procedures being followed but will not be heavy-handed in editing the list of candidates. The Greeks seem to accept this. They have played the affair in a very low key fashion throughout the last week. Leaving Iakovos aside, they have simply sought Turkish assurances that Church sensitivities be taken into account and they have made no démarche to the US or others. However, they would probably be upset if Meliton were dropped from the list or if the Turks felt compelled to appoint a new patriarch. For the moment, they seem to be letting matters take their own course to avoid a crisis in relations with Turkey.

One very remote legality Iakovos might resort to are the 1923 conventions concerning the rights of minorities—one element of which is respect for their religious practices. But this is rather way-out since the patriarchate has followed its own customary rules for years and very few go back to the 1923 general principles on minorities. However, Ankara is alert to this possibility. They told the Greeks they hoped they would not think of that route. The Greeks agreed and said they only wanted assurances Church sensitivities would generally be taken into account.

On Iakovosʼ protest that Turkey might have to select the Patriarch, Turkey has made clear that if the situation reaches that point they could amply justify it by pointing to Papadopoulosʼ brushing aside of Athens Holy Synod in 1967 and installing his own junta colleague as Patriarch of Athens.

The issue for the US is simply that the Turks have made their position clear and the Greeks themselves seem for the moment to be going along—since the future of the patriarchate itself could be at stake.

Ambassador Bush, understanding the pitfalls of our intervening, mainly wants to be sure we have covered the domestic political angle. He points out that any US approach to Waldheim would shortly get back to the Turks.

The fact is that the Turks for years have been harassing the Patriarchate, half wishing it would decide to withdraw. Given the Orthodox desire to stay in Istanbul, the Greeks at least seem to have resigned themselves to living with the situation. We are not likely to be able to change it.3

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 633, Country Files—Middle East, Turkey, Vol. III Jan 72–Dec 73. Secret; Exdis. Sent for information.
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. Vice President Agnew telephoned Kissinger on July 7 at 10:25 a.m. to discuss the issue of Archbishop Iakovosʼs attendance of the election of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Kissinger told Agnew that the Turkish Government considered it “a matter of great national interest not to permit him to come.” Agnew and Kissinger agreed that it did not make sense to send an American church group that excluded the top Greek Orthodox churchman, but they agreed that there was little they could do. Agnew stated he would call Iakovos and tell him he had done everything he could, but he and the U.S. Government would have to withdraw from the matter in light of the Turkish stance. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 373, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)