For the Patriarchate of Constantinople, this act carries with it risks of fracturing the Orthodox world as a whole. While his position carries important prestige, he presides over a flock of several thousand inside Turkey plus elements of the Greek Orthodox diaspora, notably in the United States. He exercises direct authority over only a small percentage of the world’s Orthodox—and other patriarchates, such as that of Antioch in Syria or Serbia—may contest his decision, both for religious reasons and others. For instance, especially in the case of the Antiochian Church, there is the belief that Russian political and military support is vital to its very survival in the Middle East. While elements in the U.S. government support Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision as part of the process to enhance Ukrainian national identity and statehood vis-à-vis Russian claims, Washington has done little to protect the Patriarchate against Turkish pressure in the past. Moreover, given Turkey’s newfound tilt towards Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—who has never liked the Patriarchal presence in Turkey to begin with—may be more than happy to intensify pressure on the Patriarch in retaliation, especially if this is seen as pleasing the Kremlin.
The United States does not understand the nexus of religion and identity in many parts of the world. Years of trying to sort out sectarian issues in Iraq should induce a degree of caution in Washington that the United States should become directly involved in these matters. Above all, the United States should continue to adhere to its core values of freedom of religion and freedom of association—and encourage all the stakeholders in this process to do the same.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the National Interest , is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.