By Desmond Smith
What do Donald Trump and Lord Palmerston have in common? They both believe in gun boat diplomacy and wielding the Big Stick in the interests of their respective countries.
Due to the cyclical nature of history, we can place the current dispute between Turkey and the US in a context we’ve seen before, which links St Paul of Tarsus, Don Pacifico and Andrew Brunson – the American missionary currently under house arrest in Turkey.
In AD 57, St Paul – the missionary largely responsible for the Christianisation of Cyprus along with St Barnabas – was arrested in Jerusalem for acting against the law of the land (Book of Acts 21:27-36). Paul, or Saul by his Jewish name, claimed his legal right to be tried in Rome as a citizen of the Roman empire. Paul’s objection was referred to by Cicero, Roman statesman, lawyer, philosopher and orator, with the Latin phrase: civis romanus sum — “I am a Roman citizen.” Consequently, the judicial process for Paul was suspended until he was transferred to Rome.
Now, fast forward to the 1840s and the Don Pacifico affair in Greece. David Pacifico, known as ‘Don’ Pacifico, was the Portuguese consul-general to Greece and a Jew. In 1842, he had been removed from his diplomatic post, but he continued to reside in Athens with his family. In 1847, an anti-Semitic mob, angered by the Greek government’s decision to ban the customary burning of an effigy of Judas at Easter, violently attacked, vandalised and robbed Pacifico’s home, beat up his family, smashed his furniture, stole his valuables and money and destroyed official documents of the Portuguese consular archives. The mob included one or more sons of the Greek minister of war. The police looked on at the riot and did nothing. Pacifico – who claimed British citizenship via his connection to Gibraltar, a British protectorate – appealed to the British government to seek justice for him and settle his claims for compensation.
As a result, the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, previously known as a philhellene and a supporter of the Greek War of Independence (1828-29), ordered the Royal Navy into the Aegean, authorising the seizure of Greek ships and property. By 1850, the port of Piraeus was blockaded and all Greek ships detained. Greece had no choice but to back down. Don Pacifico was eventually awarded 120,000 drachmas and £500 in the settlement (equivalent to about £70,000 in today’s money.) Welcome to gunboat diplomacy.
Fast forward again to today. Andrew Brunson – a 50-year-old American Evangelical missionary, married with three children, had lived in the city of Izmir (Greek: Smyrne) for 23 years, ministering to the tiny Protestant community at the Izmir Resurrection Church – a congregation of about 25 people who meet in a room in a tenement block.
Brunson, who was in the process of applying to become a Turkish citizen, was arrested in October 2016, after the attempted coup d’etat on President Erdogan’s government, and charged initially with being a member of the outlawed Gulen movement – a transnational social movement that advocates universal access to education, civil society and peace based on the religious teachings of Fethullah Gulen – a Turkish preacher who lives in the US. Later, Brunson was also charged with spying and attempting to overthrow the government. Up to July this year, he shared a small cell in prison with 17 other inmates also allegedly involved in the Gulen movement. He was released on July 25 and placed under house arrest. He is at the centre of an international diplomatic and economic crisis which has seen Turkey’s currency go into freefall.
President Erdogan accused the USA – their Nato ally – of stabbing Turkey in the back after President Trump declared Brunson “a fine gentleman” and “a Christian leader”. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, warned Turkey about “significant sanctions” due to Brunson’s continued detainment. Turkey, Pompeo said, should release Brunson or “face the consequences”. Nothing happened. So, President Trump lost no time in doubling steel and aluminium export tariffs on Turkey. Result: collapse of the Turkish lira with the contagion spreading to northern Cyprus.
Unlike President Obama, this American president has red lines you don’t cross. For Andrew Brunson, read Don Pacifico. The long period of relative peace and stability known as the Pax Romana (Latin for “Roman Peace”) from 27 BC to AD 180, and the Pax Brittanica (1815-1914) have given rise to a new Pax Americana, meaning that an American citizen in any part of the world comes under the protection of the US state.
As the Spanish philosopher and essayist George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Desmond Smith is a retired history teacher and freelance writer