If the Archbishop’s recent whirlwind tour in the Nation’s Capital left you with memories and impressions of the late Archbishop Iakovos, you were not alone. Less than 30 days from his enthronement, Archbishop Elpidophoros swept into Washington, DC with a thousand other religious and civic leaders for the second State Department sponsored Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. but his reception was like no other in recent memory. The Archons who participated in the State Department Ministerial last week witnessed firsthand the dynamism and intense commitment of His Eminence to the Church in America, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the American ideal of religious freedom and human rights by effectively and substantively working with our political leadership. Not since the days of Archbishop Iakovos, who was welcomed into the Oval Office by every President from JFK to Bill Clinton, has the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America been received with such esteem and appreciation. During the week of July 15, His Eminence met not only with the President and the Vice President, but he met as well with three cabinet members – Secretary of State Pompeo, Secretary of Health and Human Services Azar (an Orthodox Christian who represented the President at the enthronement), and Secretary of Commerce Ross. He also met with the Speaker of the House, the Senate Minority Leader, the White House Acting Chief of Staff, the National Security Advisor, various Members of the Congress, and leading officials of the State Department.
Through the decades, the head of our Church in America has had such opportunities, many of them only photo-ops. But like Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory, Archbishop Elpidophoros has substantively engaged our national leadership, and not as a matter of politics, but rather of responsibility.
Every Church leader knows that the members of his flock span the spectrum of political involvement and commitment. This is natural enough. Every leader also understands the difference between the ‘office’ and the person who occupies it. And there are times when, like Archbishop Iakovos and his legendary walk with Martin Luther King, Jr., you are called to speak truth to power. Nevertheless, establishing relationships of substance is a responsibility of the Primate of our Archdiocese, as the international breadth of Orthodox Christianity calls for lines of communication and dialogue.
Archbishop Elpidophoros was in Washington to specifically address religious freedom issues that affect the global community of Christians and indeed, all people of faith and good will. Whether it is the freedom of expression and security for our Ecumenical Patriarchate, the position of all Christians in the Middle East, the persecution of Christians and people of faith around the globe, or issues of national moral and ethical weight, the basis for all such dialogue is communication and mutual respect.
The political life of any nation will always be fraught with difficulty and controversy. In the United States of America, where freedom of religion is guaranteed in our Bill of Rights, the relationship of “Church and State” is not so easily navigated. It requires skill, energy, and a sincere commitment to the American ideal of freedom of conscience. Our Church can rest easy that we have a leader who possesses all those and more.
Anthony J. Limberakis, MD is Archon Aktouarios and National Commander of the Order of St. Andrew.