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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Turkey Pledges to Return Some Religious Properties

Fearing mounting losses at the European Court of Human Rights and recent adoption of Congressional legislation calling attention to its repression of Christian communities, the Turkish Government issued a decree this weekend which would return Christian and Jewish religious properties confiscated after 1936, reported the Armenian National Committee of America.

“Erdogan’s decree, clearly prompted by increased Congressional scrutiny of Turkey’s repression of its Christian minority and successive losses at the European Court of Human Rights, would return less than one percent of the churches and church properties confiscated during the Armenian Genocide and the decades that followed it,” said ANCA Chairman Ken Hachikian. “Ninety six years after the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians, Greeks, and Syriacs, this decree is a smokescreen to evade the much broader consequences of those brutal acts. The ANCA will expand its outreach to Congress and the Administration to ensure that the Turkish Government comes to terms with its brutal past, respects the religious freedom of surviving Christian communities and returns the fruits of its crime.”


The Associated Press reported that “the properties include former hospital, orphanage or school buildings and cemeteries. Their return is a key European Union demand and a series of court cases has also been filed against primarily Muslim Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights. Last year, the court ordered Turkey to return an orphanage to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.” According to Armenian Church experts, of the over 2,000 churches serving the Armenian community prior to 1915, less than 40 are functioning as churches today.

Erdogan’s decree comes just weeks after a 43-1 House Foreign Affairs Committee vote on an amendment to the State Department Authorization bill, spearheaded by Ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), calling for the return of Christian Churches confiscated by the Turkish government and an end to Turkey’s discrimination against its Christian communities. The amendment is similar to a resolution (H.Res.306), introduced in June by Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Howard Berman (D-CA), which has more than 35 cosponsors. To learn more about the House Foreign Affairs Committee amendment and H.Res.306, visit http://www.anca.org/return .

In March, Congressional Hellenic Caucus co-chairs Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) introduced legislation (H.Res.180), reiterating a longstanding call by House members for Turkey to respect the rights and religious freedoms of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Turkey’s treatment of its Christian minority has also emerged as an issue of contention in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee consideration of U.S. Ambassador to Turkey nominee Francis Ricciardone. In response to questions submitted by Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Amb. Ricciardone erroneously asserted that a majority of Christian churches functioning in 1915 continue to operate as churches today. A revised response recently submitted to the key Senate panel continued to misrepresent the number of functioning churches.

Archbishops Oshagan Choloyan and Moushegh Mardirossian, Prelates of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America Eastern and Western United States, respectively, and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church – Eastern United States each issued powerfully worded spiritual messages in response to the Ambassador’s statement. In an August 15 statement, Archbishop Choloyan stressed that the Ambassador’s assertion was “so blatantly false that it cannot remain unchallenged.” Setting the record straight, he noted that: “The facts are quite clear. From the massacres of Armenians in 1895-96 and the Armenian Genocide in 1915, to the decades following the establishment of the Turkish republic, Christian houses of worship were systematically destroyed or confiscated. My own church’s hierarchal see, the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, was a victim of this process, and today is exiled in Lebanon. The archives of the Catholicosate contain hundreds of original deeds and other documentation of churches and church owned property that was confiscated.”

Archbishop Mardirossian concurred, stating, “The presence of an Ambassador in Ankara who is unaware of or uninterested in the truth and the consequences of the Ottoman and Republican Turkish government’s genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, Syriacs, Greeks and other Christians materially undermines U.S. interests, compromises American values, and weakens international efforts to defend religious freedom for peoples of all faiths. Sadly, but unmistakably, with this hateful and hurtful statement, Ambassador Ricciardone has demonstrated that he is not the right candidate to effectively and responsibly represent the United States in Turkey.”

On August 19, Archbishop Barsamian noted that Amb. Ricciardone’s response had “deeply offended Armenian-Americans”, explaining that “the loss of these many hundreds of churches, their neglect and outright destruction, and the conversion of many of our sanctuaries into mosques, is a matter of intense pain to Armenians: an ongoing reminder of the loss of life and the destruction that we suffered as a result of the 1915 Genocide… In all charity, perhaps the Ambassador is simply unaware of certain facts. But mastery of the history of a country, its dark as well as bright chapters, is essential to serving the United States effectively and diplomatically in this important and complex region.”

ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian slammed Amb. Ricciardone’s revised response last week, stating, “It took Ambassador Ricciardone, with the help of his many State Department colleagues, over a week to submit in writing a patently false misrepresentation about the destruction of Christian churches in Turkey, and another 10 days and a full wave of Senate and citizen pressure for him to finally take half a step back from the most offensive and obviously incorrect aspects of his response. “He just keeps digging himself into a deeper hole as an apologist for Ankara. His use of false figures and euphemisms to try to twist his way out of his misrepresentation – while somehow still trying to stick to Turkey’s genocide denial narrative – clearly confirms that Ambassador Ricciardone is not the right representative of U.S. values and interests in Turkey.”


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