January 25, 2022


News Network

Senior State Department Officials Briefing to Traveling Press

30 min read

Istanbul, Turkey

MODERATOR:  Great.  Thanks, everyone, for getting together very quickly —

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.

MODERATOR:  — to do this, but we wanted to get you guys as much information as we could.  We wanted to kind of keep this short and to the point, do this on background.  Attribution is to two senior State Department officials.

QUESTION:  Or three.

MODERATOR:  And so we’ll lead off with to talk about France.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Great.  So as I mentioned, as you know, the Secretary met with Foreign —

QUESTION:  Can I bother you to —


QUESTION:  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  — Foreign Minister Le Drian today in Paris.  They talked broadly about counterterrorism and ongoing work there.  The foreign minister noted recent successes that the French have had in the Sahel and that they could not have done without the support of the U.S., highlighted that this is a great example of where we have made such strides in the broad global counterterrorism effort.  Obviously, the French with a particular emphasis on the Sahel and the real progress there.

They talked about Nagorno-Karabakh extensively.  As two co-chairs, they shared the same view that we are – we remain committed to our role as co-chairs in the Minsk Group process, that that’s where it is, recognizing the actions that Russia took which has led to a ceasefire that’s actually held now for about a week, but also acknowledging that there were still a lot of questions that needed clarity from the Russians as to the parameters of that agreement, and that included the role of the Turks.

And so more to be learned from that.  They both noted that the Russians have invited the co-chairs to Moscow for more clarity, and as you probably have seen in the wires, there have been phone calls between and among the co-chairs.  Foreign Minister Le Drian noted that he had spoken to Lavrov, who acknowledged that they were trying to take action to stop what was really an emergency humanitarian situation, but there do remain questions to be discussed about that.

So a lot of talk about Nagorno-Karabakh, the Caucasus, and then broadly also about Turkey and the various areas where we’re – we have some concerns and differences with the Turks – various theaters across the region from the Eastern Med, Libya, Syria, and other parts.  Obviously, the Secretary was on his way here.  And they spoke too about security in Baghdad, keeping in close touch on the issues that we’ve raised there, Foreign Minister Le Drian noting that the French have also done their part to urge the Iraqis to take the appropriate steps necessary to provide security in the Green Zone.  I’ll leave it there.



SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  — do a lay of the land for Turkey?

MODERATOR:  , do you want to give us a —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Sure.  Let me address the topic that you all will bring up if I don’t, which is the question of scheduling Istanbul:  No meetings with Turkish officials.  From the very beginning when this trip was initially proposed, this was all presented as a scheduling challenge.  The Secretary, as you know well, has a limited window available.  We made clear that he was open to seeing any Turkish officials who are able to meet with him here in Istanbul, but that it had to be an Istanbul agenda.  We couldn’t do a double stop and fit within the timing of the broader trip, either on the arrival or the departure to Tbilisi.

We have worked closely with Turkish officials.  I saw the foreign minister just a few days ago along with pretty much the panoply of other national security officials, and I can assure you the tone of those meetings was absolutely collegial and positive to try to make this work.  There were moments when we thought it could and would, but then the Turks told us President Erdogan’s schedule had itself changed.  And I attribute to this no political message whatsoever.  It literally was a scheduling issue from the standpoint of the Secretary of State and a scheduling issue from the standpoint of President Erdogan and his own travels.

So this is the be-all and the end-all of this question.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Great.  And lastly, I’d just like to make a couple comments about some of the meetings that the Secretary is going to have here in Istanbul, specifically on the issue of religious freedom.  As you’ll see from the schedule, he’s meeting the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.  He’s also meeting the Vatican’s nuncio to Turkey, the Archbishop Paul Russell, who I believe hails from Boston.

As you know, religious freedom has been an important priority of the Trump administration from the very beginning.  No administration has promoted this unalienable right as strongly, consistently, and clearly as this administration has.  These meetings should be viewed in that context.  Happy to answer any questions you have about it.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Super.  Nick.

QUESTION:  Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg.  I just had two quickies, so one on the religious freedom element:  Can you be a little more specific about the message that he wants to send on religious freedom by doing these meetings?  Obviously, I mean, is it trying to send a signal over the Hagia Sophia decision?  There’s a fair amount of tension and a lot of roiling religious issues in Turkey right now, so beyond just a broad message of religious freedom, is there a more specific message where he’s concerned about what the Government of Turkey is doing?

And then second, for both of you, on Turkey – or all three of you – I mean, the issues between the U.S. and Turkey right now are so many.  There’s so many sort of tension points.  It feels like, based on the response that the foreign ministry has given to this visit, saying that – it seems like they’re saying it was a violation of protocol; there are other concerns from the foreign ministry – you’re opening up another front in tension between the two sides.  I mean, is this the right moment to be making a statement like this?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Why don’t you answer the broader question?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  You want me to do it?  I was going to say —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  You do the broader one first and —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I’ll turn to you on religious freedoms.



SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Yeah, and then I’ll fill in on the rest of the —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah.  First of all, I’m not going to speculate on speculation.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  So I’m not going to comment on what officials of Turkey may or may not have said in terms of press —

QUESTION:  Well, I mean, the foreign ministry issued a statement (inaudible).

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  As I’ve said, I think I have something beyond a statement to base my comments to you upon:  direct conversation.  This was a scheduling issue.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Both of us – the Secretary, Turkish officials – Foreign Minister Cavusoglu and I think President Erdogan would have liked to see this all work.  In the end, it couldn’t.  It couldn’t, in the end, because President Erdogan’s schedule shifted and made it impossible to fit the parameters that from the very beginning we had set out for the Secretary’s own visit.

With respect to the broader relationship, of course it is certainly no secret we have significant issues.  Europe has significant issues, both Europe in the collective and individual European states, as noted when he made his readout to you of the Le Drian meeting.

All of these issues are addressed, will continue to be addressed.  And with respect to the particular connotations or judgments that should be drawn from the inability to work the schedule tomorrow or tonight to accommodate those visits, I do not think that the Turkish Government – they can speak for themselves – regard this as a, quote, “new front being opened as a deliberate measure by the administration.”  That’s a little dramatic.

QUESTION:  Sure, I mean, but is it – point taken.  But just to sort of press the point, right, we’re setting aside the issue of scheduling.  The Secretary’s visit here sends a very distinct message given what’s happening internally within Turkey in matters of religion, the decision to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, for example.  I mean, he’s sending a very specific message, and I guess this gets to the question of what that message is.  But this – it feels like whether there’s a scheduling issue or not, this is going to be something that will antagonize Turkey.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I do not believe that the Turkish Government – again, and you can ask that, and they will speak for themselves – feel antagonized by what, in the end, has been a scheduling question.  And on substance, the Turks know very well from the most senior levels of the administration, the President on down, what our views are on those issues where we are at variance.  They also know our views on those areas where we do see cooperation and where we see a valuable strategically important role for Turkey, including in the context of NATO, as well as Europe broadly.  All of that is well understood, and we continue to work those issues where we do not have agreement and which we believe are important for us and for others.

But , I’ll turn to you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  No, I know.  I think that’s right.  There’s nothing antagonizing about speaking about the inalienable right of religious freedom.  And the United States has shown again – multiple times, repeatedly in this administration – that we’ll do so.  And so whether it’s the Uyghur community that’s in exile here that’s fled religious persecution in China, or Christians trying to practice their faith, or the Orthodox Church which recognized Ukraine’s autocephaly, the Secretary has always spoken strongly and forthrightly about the right of every human being to exercise their right to believe or not to believe in anything at all.  And I’m sure that will —

QUESTION:  And do you believe that religious freedom is under threat here?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  We have the Religious Freedom Report.  Clearly, there have been issues.  Look at the case of Pastor Andrew Brunson.  Certainly, there are issues to discuss, and I think I’ll leave it at that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Nick, I will make just one comment beyond what said.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  This is the ecumenical patriarch.  He’s the head of the Orthodox Church.  That is 300 million believers, another 100 million who follow the Russian Church.  But he has a critical global role.  It’s not confined by any means to Turkey, where the number of believers is in the tens of thousands.  It’s globally.  It’s the importance of the ecumenical patriarch’s thinking about how he sees not just his Orthodox community, the broader Christian community, the Church in the greatest sense of the word.  And the Patriarch just came back from Rome, where he had a Sant’Egidio conference which he attended, met as he does frequently with the pope.  This is a global figure whose views on the global situation of religion and freedoms of religion are critical.  That’s why the Secretary has chosen to do this.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  And a meeting that we, frankly, have been trying to do for a long time.



SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  His own travel to the States —


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  — which had actually been announced was – the ecumenical patriarch’s travel was postponed because of COVID.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  And he’s met with Orthodox leaders on multiple occasions in Ukraine and Washington, so this is in line with that.


QUESTION:  Hi, thank you.  Francesco Fontemaggi for AFP.  Just back to Paris.  I know you weren’t in the Macron meeting, but in the Le Drian were the U.S. election and transition discussed in any way?  Did they ask you —


QUESTION:  — where you stand, where you are?  You didn’t at all?


QUESTION:  Okay.  And then on the other topics, you didn’t mention Iran.  You explained to them I think there is a lot of interest of what the U.S. administration plans to do on Iran between now and January 20.  And the second part is about I saw Macron make very clear that he didn’t feel France was very much supported on its stance against – well, not against but in favor of the French secularism, laicité.  Did you share that view?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:   Can we – we talked about the focus on terrorism.  The Secretary opened the conversation by expressing again our profound condolences and shock at the attacks in France, the recent ones but noting how much and over a number of years France has suffered at this, which is a reminder of how much work we have to do, at the same time looking at how far we’ve come in many ways through the cooperation we have countering terrorism in many corners of the world.

There was not a lot of specific discussion about Iran, although acknowledging Iran’s role, for instance, I mentioned they did discuss Iraq and the security challenges there, which are directly attributable, of course, to Iran, the Qods Force and our views on that.

QUESTION:  Okay, they weren’t because – they say that they are worried about what the administration can do between now and January 20 that could make it more – even more difficult for whatever Biden wants to —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Whatever they’re saying to you, they’re saying to you.  That was not a conversation – part of our conversation in the meeting today.

QUESTION:  If I may —

MODERATOR:  Yeah.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  If I may follow up – Alex Rega with Fox – do you think specifically that he’s going to bring up the Hagia Sophia in his conversations?  And then, as secondary, what went into the choice of the mosque that he’ll be visiting?




SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  — in a fashion which will be quite non-dramatic.  The – first, it’s very close by, given the compression of the schedule.  And secondly, it is a gem.  It is a spectacular example in a relatively small physical space of Mimar Sinan’s architectural genius and the Iznik tilework – I can go on like this for an indefinite period – (laughter) – the Iznik tilework which is in the process of restoration, and the restoration itself is a fascinating process.  The Turkish craftspersons from Iznik are engaged in replicating the kind of style and quality of the tiles in the 16th century.  It’s a beauty; that’s why.  Because we could get there quickly, because it’s under restoration, and because it’s a gem.

QUESTION:  And so why no meeting with any Muslim leaders?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  There will be representatives —

QUESTION:  There will be, okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  — from the religious establishment present at the Rustem Ali Pasha mosque.

QUESTION:  Great, got it.

SENIORE STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  I’d also just note that the Secretary talked to the Nahdlatul Ulama in Jakarta, one of the world’s largest Muslim civic organizations, less than a month ago, with tens of millions of members.


QUESTION:  Not much follow up from me.  Both of you did a pretty good job.  I – my initial – you did – my initial curiosity was with the religious freedom agenda, but more on the macro of it, right.  This is one piece of what you guys have been doing for a while, so , I was specifically curious if you can speak to —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  You mean Senior Official Number Three.

QUESTION:  — yes – if you could speak to how the issue has evolved for the Secretary himself.  The Trump administration has pushed this, but I always got this sense that it was particularly important to the Secretary, that he had a lot invested in it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  Well, one of the largest initiatives or most important initiatives the Secretary launched was the Commission on Unalienable Rights to ground our practice of rights in foreign policy in the principles of the American founding.  America was founded by believers.  Religious freedom was integral to the creation of our country.  We were the first nation ever founded on the idea that every individual human being possessed these rights.  He’s been thinking about these issues for many, many years, ever since he was at Harvard Law School, and that commission was an important statement of how to ground rights in our founding.  As for the – how his defense of that has evolved, I mean —

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) question in some ways.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL THREE:  I can go through the list with you – the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the largest human rights events the State Department has ever held; Sam Brownback has put together a coalition of nations that – to promote and support religious freedom or belief, which is a multilateral initiative that’s been very important, and has held meetings all over the world, from the continent of Africa to Taiwan and elsewhere; there’s just an enormous number of things that we’ve done – the Geneva Declaration, which was just signed with HHS.  I could go on but I’ll just – I’ll stop there.  I don’t – I don’t know, you can go through the record.

MODERATOR:  All right, last question.

QUESTION:  Yeah, I was just curious – Jimmy Quinn from National Review —


QUESTION:  — about the conversations that went on regarding China in the meeting with Le Drian.  And I think the readout mentioned something about Xinjiang.  What was the conversation there?


QUESTION:  Or maybe I’m mixing it up with the Macron readout.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  I think you may be mixing it up.

QUESTION:  Okay.   

QUESTION:  Just wanted to ask you:  Is there any plan for the Secretary to talk on the phone with his counterpart or Erdogan while here?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Not at present.  If there is, we’ll let you all know.

QUESTION:  Because you mentioned so many points of differences with Turkey —


QUESTION:  — during the meeting in Paris that it seems (inaudible) assumption that —


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  They have the NATO ministerial coming up, so they’ll meet in that.

QUESTION:  I know, it just seems so weird that they don’t meet.  That’s it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Well as you heard multiple times now, the scheduling – that’s —


QUESTION:  No, I understand, but it’s just —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  They have plenty of ways of communicating, so —

QUESTION:  — the optics, really.

QUESTION:  So is he going to bring up the Hagia Sophia?

QUESTION:  Oh yeah.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Oh, I can answer.  I can’t speak for the Secretary or for the ecumenical patriarch.  I can only note this is a topic that we’ve discussed with the ecumenical patriarch and he with us on many occasions.


QUESTION:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  All right.  Thank you so much.


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