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Thursday, July 21, 2011

House Panel Urges Turkey to Return Churches and Religious Sites to 'Rightful Owners'

Patriarch Bartholomew holds a wooden cross in Istanbul
A US congressional committee on Wednesday urged Turkey to ensure religious freedom and return church properties to their "rightful owners" in a vote opposed by the Ankara government.

After a spirited debate, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a text that says Turkey should "end all forms of religious discrimination" and "return to their rightful owners" all churches and other Christian historic sites.
"Religious minorities are under grave threat in today's Turkey," said Representative Ed Royce, a Republican from California.

"Rather than enjoying protection, very vulnerable religious minority groups including the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox Church are denied full legal status," he said.

Turkey in 1971 closed a major seminary of the Orthodox Church, which has been seated in Istanbul since Byzantine times, as the secular state tried to bring universities under its control.

Turkey does not recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I's title as head of Orthodox Christians and considers him only the spiritual head of Turkey's tiny Greek Orthodox minority.

Turkey had voiced opposition to the amendment -- which was included in a spending bill -- and noted that the country has historically been home to large numbers of Christians and Jews.

"Turkey opposes the language in the measure because it presents a biased, one-sided perspective and wholly disregards the constructive steps Turkey has taken to safeguard and expand religious freedom and tolerance and to preserve places of worship belonging to Jews and Christians," Namik Tan, Turkey's ambassador to Washington, said in a statement.

The measure enjoyed support from both major US parties. But Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California who eventually voted for the text, questioned why the House zeroed in on Turkey.

In comments that angered some colleagues, Rohrabacher said that Turkey had a better record than most Muslim-majority countries and suggested that fellow lawmakers were acting to please constituents of Greek or Armenian heritage.

"We have a terrible double standard when it comes to Turkey. Yes, they have legitimate concerns, but that doesn't mean we have to be inconsistent, singling them out," Rohrabacher said.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee last year voted to describe the 1915-1917 mass killings of Armenians as "genocide," leading Turkey to withdraw its ambassador temporarily.

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