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Turkey forewarns US Secretary of State Pompeo on religion ahead of visit

Published: Updated:

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned visit to Turkey got off to a rocky start Wednesday when Ankara criticized his decision to raise the issue of religious freedom.

Washington’s top diplomat will be in Istanbul next Monday and Tuesday as part of a seven-nation tour that also takes him to France and parts of the Middle East.

The Istanbul leg is notable for an absence of scheduled meetings with any top Turkish officials.

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His only planned talks are with Bartholomew I of Constantinople – the spiritual leader of the Greek Orthodox world.

The State Department said Pompeo wanted to “discuss religious issues in Turkey and the region and to promote our strong stance on religious freedom around the world.”

The meeting with the patriarch will come four months after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan converted Istanbul’s emblematic Hagia Sophia monument into a mosque.

Pompeo publicly criticized the conversion in July.

The Turkish foreign ministry called Pompeo’s chosen subject matter for the visit “completely irrelevant.”

“It would be more suitable for the US to first look in the mirror and show the requisite sensitivity towards human rights violations in the country such as racism, Islamophobia and hate crimes,” it said in the English-language statement.

Relations between Washington and its strategic NATO ally have run hot and cold during Donald Trump’s presidency.

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Erdogan has cultivated close personal relations with Trump and been able to call him up directly to try to influence specific policy decisions.

But Ankara and Washington have also sparred over US support for a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey views as a grave security threat.

Erdogan congratulated Joe Biden for his election victory on Tuesday – three full days after it was called by US media.

He followed that up by sending a separate message to Trump a few hours later expressing thanks for his “warm friendship” and saying he stood by his side “no matter how the official election result is certified.”

The Turkish foreign ministry did not explain why none of its officials had planned meetings with Pompeo.

But it noted that its “reaction” to his visit “has been duly conveyed to the US side, together with our advice to focus instead primarily on increasing the cooperation between our countries regarding regional and global matters.”