After refusing to acknowledge President-Elect Joe Biden’s victory, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to meet with Christian religious authorities in Turkey next week amid speculation that he may wish to mount his own presidential bid in 2024.
Although Mr Pompeo’s visit to Turkey is part of a broader tour of Europe and the Middle East, it is the one country where he will not meet with any government officials.
Instead he will meet with key leaders of Turkey’s tiny Christian minority as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan focuses on overtures to his Islamist base amid a significant currency crisis and his government’s struggle to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.
While in Istanbul, Mr Pompeo will meet with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I as well as the apostolic nuncio to Turkey, Archbishop Paul Russell.
“Secretary Pompeo is going to use these opportunities to discuss religious issue and, as you know, promoting the unalienable human right of religious freedom and fighting religious persecution is a key priority for the administration and for Secretary Pompeo,” a senior State Department official told reporters during a telephone briefing on Friday.
Mr Pompeo will also tour the Rustem Pasha mosque. Notably, the Istanbul visit comes after Mr Erdogan ordered the conversion of the Hagia Sophia museum, a former Byzantine church, back into a mosque in July – drawing a sharp rebuke from Mr Pompeo. Mr Erdogan’s government also issued a decree in August to transform the Chora Museum, a former Christian monastery, back into a mosque.
“The rhetoric accompanying these two decisions was extremely concerning, meaning it was a message of reconquest that introduced a kind of Ottoman-era hierarchy between ruling Muslim Turks and religious minorities,” said Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and a former Turkish parliamentarian.
“One could also see Pompeo’s visit – or meeting with the ecumenical patriarch – as a message of solidarity as well as a message of concern about Turkey’s worrying trajectory.”
While the State Department official said that senior Turkish officials “have their own travel schedule” and noted that Mr Pompeo has “a very tight schedule in Istanbul,” Mr Erdemir attributed the lack of government-to-government meetings to the diplomatic impasse between the two allies over a myriad of issues.
Turkey tested the Russian S-400 missile defense system last month despite Washington’s stated concerns that its powerful radar could allow Moscow to spy on US military hardware. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar repeated a longstanding proposal to form a joint US-Turkey working group on the S-400 issue earlier this week.
“Pompeo does not necessarily have an interest in listening to the same offer again,” said Mr Erdemir. “And in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey continues seismic exploration and drilling in contested maritime waters, so there doesn’t seem to be anything new on the Turkish front.”
And while the Donald Trump administration has so far refused to implement legally mandated congressional sanctions on Turkey over its S-400 purchase from Russia, a State Department spokesperson told The National that “Turkey remains at risk of sanctions” over the missile system.
Mr Pompeo’s trip to Turkey coincides with the ministerial to advance religious freedom in Poland – though he will not be attending that particular summit. However, he will travel to France to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony in honor of schoolteacher Samuel Paty and three other French citizens in Nice, all of whom were murdered in Islamist terrorist attacks.
His itinerary also includes stops in Georgia and Israel – as well as the occupied West Bank. It will mark the first time a sitting US secretary of state has visited an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
The settlement visit is likely to be well-received by the evangelical Republican base – a key demographic Mr Pompeo relied to propel his political career forward as a US lawmaker before he entered the Trump administration.
His trip will also include visits to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
In the UAE, Mr Pompeo will meet with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. They will discuss the Abraham Accords, which normalised UAE-Israeli relations, as well as the Trump administration’s proposed $23 billion sale of F-35 aircraft, drones and air-to-ground munitions.
“Only through increased cooperation with all six GCC countries and the US can we thoroughly counter the malign influence of the Iranian regime across the region,” a senior State Department official said. “The United States wants to see the parties involved resolve the dispute, to begin lifting all restrictions on air space and land borders as soon as possible.”