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The White House

Remarks of the President, the Vice President and Archbishop Demetrios to Commemorate Greek Independence Day


Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                                             March 25, 2009


East Room

5:13 P.M. EDT

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  Well, Your Eminence, as some of my good friends sitting and standing in front of me here said, I'm an honorary Greek not only today -- (applause) -- not only today, but every day.  It's great to be with you all.  And it's great to be commemorating such an important day, quite frankly, not just for Greece, but for America, as well. 

The great Greek fabulist Aesop once wrote:  "In union there is strength."  Today, both literally and figuratively, we stand together -- a union forged throughout our history, and a strength that grows each and every day.  It's a strength stemming from, quite frankly, the very core of our existence.  When I say I'm Greek every day, it's not merely because my first election the Greek community elected me.  But the truth of the matter is that Greece in America -- Greece and America share common values, common goals, a common philosophical tradition going back to the great scholars of ancient Greece.

And it was once said that except the blind forces of nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in origin.  Nothing moves in this world that is not Greek in origin.  And I, for one, am very proud to move in this world with those origins as part of our country's tradition, and as part of my tradition and the President's. 

And I'm even prouder to introduce the Archbishop.  The Archbishop and I go back a little bit.  We've met a number of times, and I was -- he was kind enough to have me at his residence.  And the Archbishop knows that, at a very deep level, our countries come from the same historical DNA, and that he sets out each and every day not just to enrich his history and the history of Greek and Greek Orthodoxy, not just to educate, but this is a man who impresses me because he is always -- always, always -- seeking knowledge; always seeking to learn something new.  It always amazes me every time we have a conversation, Your Eminence. 

He came to Harvard, which as a University of Delaware graduate I will not hold against him -- (laughter) -- because there's so many Harvard guys in the room.  (Laughter.)  But he came to Harvard in the 1960s, and has contributed greatly to the growth of our two nations for decades now. 

In his Archbishop enthronement address 10 years ago, he said of America, "Here, a remarkably wide field of truly great work is open to us."  Well, he has entered that wide world, he has entered that field, and he has continued to open himself up to the truly great work ever since.  And he's shared what he's learned with so many of us, both personally and publicly.

I speak in behalf of every American, Greek or otherwise, who cares about the union we share when I say that, Archbishop, we are truly lucky to have you here.  And I feel and the President feel fortunate to be able to call you a friend, as well as a leading leader of one of the great faiths in the world.

Your endless curiosity, your thirst for knowledge only serve to make all of us stronger.  If that old Greek saying is true that curiosity is the beginning of wisdom, well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm proud to introduce one very wise man:  His Eminence, the Archbishop Demetrios.  (Applause.)

I'm not very good at this Archbishop, it's stuck there.  Hang on just a second here.  There you go.  Thank you. 

ARCHBISHOP DEMETRIOS:  That constitutes an event.  (Laughter.)

THE VICE PRESIDENT:  That is an event.  That is an event.  (Laughter.)

ARCHBISHOP DEMETRIOS:  Thank you so much, Mr. Vice President, for your very kind introduction.  That really make me lose my words, but it's a good thing that I have written them so I can -- (laughter) -- I can speak now.

Mr. President, on behalf of the Greek American Orthodox community of this blessed land, I have the great honor to wholeheartedly congratulate you on your historic ascendance to the presidency of the United States.  In addition to our warmest congratulation to you and to the First Lady, we have -- you have our fervent prayers and support as you proceed with the awesome task of leading our nation in accomplishing its great mission in our troubled world. 

You also have our deepest thanks for kindly and personally inviting us to the White House for this commemoration of Greek Independence Day -- a presidential -- a truly presidential celebration of Greek and American democracy. 

It was on this day, the 25th of March, in the year 1821, that the Greek people, after suffering for nearly 400 years of tyrannical occupation, stood up, a David against a Goliath, and declared their independence.  They fought with astonishing bravery and against all odds, and established the free, modern Greek nation among the free nations of the Earth, bringing democracy once again to its very birthplace.

Today, as we offer tribute to the heroes who, with the help of God, produced the miracle of March 25, 1821, we honor them in this unique place which constitutes a preeminent symbol of freedom and peace, justice and democracy, life and abundance of life -- to use the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John.  In this spirit, and in full awareness of the tremendous power, both personal and institutional, over the President of the United States, we feel, and we feel it completely and freely, that we can kindly ask you for your special assistance -- an assistance in resolving chronic injustices related to issues of religious freedom, human rights, peaceful coexistence, democratic rule of law, and the pursuit of happiness.

I am specifically referring -- and allow me to do that -- to the following three cases:  First, the case of the religious freedom of our Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.  This means the free and unfettered exercise of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew's purely spiritual mission of leading the Orthodox Christians' world of over a quarter of a billion people; furthermore, his possibility to proceed freely and effectively in his pioneering work for the environment and in his passionate promotion of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

Second, the case of the well-known issue of the Republic of Cyprus; and third, the case of the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

We are confident, Mr. President, that you, following the brilliant example of Alexander the Great, you will be able to -- (laughter and applause) -- that you will be able to cut the Gordian Knot of these unresolved issues, and by so doing, enhance peace and reconciliation among the peoples included and involved.

The history of unbreakable ties and sincere friendship between the United States and Greece is well known, but there is a special connection prior to 1821.  I speak of the famous Barbary War in Tripoli, Libya, North Africa, that involved the newly established Marine Corps in April 1805, a detachment under the command of Lieutenant O'Bannon, consisting of six American Marines, a company of 24 commoners, and another 26 Greeks with their own proper officers engaged the enemy.  Seven of these Greeks fell in that battle on African soil, under the Marines and in defense of the American flag in 1805.

Mr. President, as I offer to you a memorabilia from this event -- it's a copy from the Archives of the Marines, including the names -- most of the names of the Greeks engaged in this war. That's for you.

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you so much.  (Applause.)

ARCHBISHOP DEMETRIOS:  I should like -- as I do that, I should like in closing, to call to mind that when Greece, a few years later, rose up in 1821, that was in part inspired by the declaration of the American Revolution of independence in 1776.  This comes as no surprise as the love of freedom and democracy forges a bond among peoples that knows no boundaries of race, creed, ethnic origin, language or distance.  And it also is no surprise that when the war of 1821 began, there were Americans of the time, the Philhellenes who traveled around the land, across land and sea, to help restore democracy in its native land -- Greece.

As you continue to lead our blessed United States, the world's greatest democracy, please know, Mr. President, that our prayers, fervent prayers, are with you, our First Lady, Michelle, your daughters, Malia and Sasha.  And we thank you once again for the great honor of this noble celebration of March 25, 1821.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Well, what a great honor.  I will tell Michelle that I've been compared to Alexander the Great.  (Laughter.)  I will see whether that gets me a little more respect -- (laughter) -- at home.  She knows she's still the boss.

Your Eminence, it is a great honor to have you here.  And I want to mention a few others who are here that deserve acknowledgment.  Father Alex Karloutsos -- Father Alex, where did you go?  There he is.  (Applause.)  The Greek Minister of Justice is here.  Where -- there he is.  (Applause.)  Dendias -- did I say that properly?  We also have the Greek Ambassador Mallias.  (Applause.)  And we have the Cypriot Ambassador Kakouris.  (Applause.) 

Thank you, all.   And I see a lot of good friends -- a few from Chicago; we've got the Chicago contingent in the house.  (Applause.)  Wonderful supporters, great friends of mine, welcome to the White House. 

It is a great honor to be here with His Eminence as we mark the 10th anniversary since he became Archbishop.  (Applause.)  And it is a privilege to join all of you as we celebrate the contributions of Greece and those of Greek heritage to this country and to the world.

Today, we commemorate the 188th anniversary of Greek independence -- and we reaffirm a bond between our two nations born through struggle but also through shared ideals.

It is a bond that's on display today in towns and cities across the United States.  In Chicago, we have a thriving Greek American community centered around a neighborhood known as Greektown.  There's a parade marking independence each year.  In fact, at this very moment, you might find young people in Chicago's streets paying tribute to their Greek heritage by wearing the traditional foustanellas.  (Laughter and applause.)  I notice some of you aren't dressed appropriately.  (Laughter.)  I haven't seen any around the White House today, but I'm keeping an eye out.

AUDIENCE MEMBER:  Maybe next year. 

THE PRESIDENT:  Next year?  Alexi, where's yours?  (Laughter.)  Because, as you know, there are many proud Greek Americans in my administration.

And this bond we share dates to our founding.  America's revolutionaries imagined a new system of government, but they drew upon an ancient precedent.  It's no coincidence that the leaders of the American Revolution -- Jefferson and Madison, Adams, Hamilton -- were students of Greek history and Greek philosophy.  As a boy, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, was said to prefer spending time with his Greek grammar books than with his classmates.

In our darkest days -- when our revolution was a fading hope, when friends were few and victories were rare -- these leaders found allies in ancient texts.

And just as America's founders sought guidance and inspiration from Greece, Greek revolutionaries drew strength and support from the United States, as was just mentioned by His Eminence.  In fact, these leaders appealed directly to the American people, offering respect and seeking support.  They wrote, "It is your land" -- "It is in your land that liberty has fixed her abode.  In imitating you, we shall imitate our ancestors and be thought worthy of them if we succeed in resembling you."

In a message to Congress soon after the inception of fighting, President Monroe affirmed our kinship with the Greeks who were "contending in favor of their liberties."  He spoke of a "strong hope ¼ that these people will recover their independence and resume their equal station among the nations of the Earth."

Of course, it's been a difficult and long-enduring struggle, both in the many centuries before the call for independence and in the nearly two centuries since.  It's perhaps the cruelest of ironies that a people who first tested a free and democratic form of government were doomed to live so long without it.

But it's also one of history's great triumphs that even in the darkest periods, the light of those ideals were never extinguished:  Through brutal wars, instead people who were inspired by the ideals met them with bravery; through occupations that were met with defiance; through hardship met with incredible character -- and character of a people that never lost hope in the values Greece has always represented.

Today, Greece stands as a testament of that unflinching character -- as does the steadfast allegiance between our two nations.  And I am proud to welcome so many Greek citizens and Greek Americans to the White House as we celebrate this occasion and our continued partnership in the years ahead.

So thank you, Your Eminence.  Thanks, all of you, for taking the time to be here.  Thank you.  (Applause.)
5:32 P.M. EDT