It was to be a momentous occasion to bid farewell to Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, a giant of the global Orthodox Church who also had served in the United States as Archbishop, helping to strengthen the ethnic community of immigrants into a unified national church.
Patriarch Athenagoras died on July 7, 1972 and plans were underway to afford him the funeral he deserved, complete with national delegations from countries throughout the world– including the United States.
Set to lead the delegation from the U.S. was Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America, along with Terence Cardinal Cooke, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, the Rt. Reverend Jonathan Sherman, Episcopal Bishop of Long Island, Rabbi Marc Tenenbaum, director of inter-religious affairs of the American Jewish Committee and Dr. Edwin Espy, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.
The five were to form an ecumenical delegation at the funeral services, which were being organized in Istanbul, Turkey.
But on July 10, 1972 Turkey informed the U.S. Archbishop– himself born a Turkish citizen but having since become a naturalized American citizen– that he was banned from entering the country to participate in Athenagoras’ funeral.
As a result, the entire delegation of U.S. religious leaders withdrew from the delegation and no official U.S. religious delegation attended the funeral.
Iakovos said in an interview that a State Department official had notified the Archdiocese that Turkish officials refused to grant him a visa, calling him “undesirable and persona non grata” in the country.
Dr. Espy said in newspaper interviews that it was “almost unbelievable that any country would see fit to prevent a church leader from attending the funeral of his Patriarch.”
“I decided not to go not out of disrespect for the Patriarch, Espy said at the time. “On the other hand it is a show of disrespect to him and his church that the church has been affronted in this way.”
Iakovos said at the time that he was bitterly disappointed because he thought “going to the funeral to kiss the hand of my spiritual father was an elemental human right.”
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