House Panel Approves Resolution Calling on Turkey to Return Confiscated Christian Churches

By Tierney Smith | August 5, 2011 | 4:00am EDT


Flag of the Republic of Turkey. (Wikipedia Commons)


( – The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently voted 43 to one in support of a resolution that calls upon the Republic of Turkey “to safeguard its Christian heritage and to return confiscated church properties” – a step the Turkish Embassy described as “deeply regrettable.”

The resolution (H.Res. 306), introduced by Reps. Edward Royce (R-Calif.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), cites the “Ottoman Empire’s oppression and intentional destruction of much of its ancient Christian populations, including over 2,000,000 Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Pontians, and Syrics,” and adds that Turkey “has been responsible for the destruction and theft of much of the Christian heritage within its borders.”

The Ottoman Empire, from 1300 to 1922, was an Islamic-governed empire that covered much of southeastern Europe and parts of North Africa and the Middle East. In 1923, with the empire’s official dissolution, Turkey became one of its successor states.

According to the congressional resolution, which was passed on July 20, Turkey, “through official and unofficial acts of discrimination, intolerance, and intimidation, has hindered the remaining Christians on its territory from freely practicing their ancient faiths.”

The resolution urges the Turkish government to “end all forms of religious discrimination” and, among other related issues, “return to their rightful owners all Christian churches and other places of worship,” and “allow the rightful Christian church and lay owners of Christian church properties, without hindrance or restriction, to preserve, reconstruct, and repair, as they see fit, all Christian churches and other places of worship … within Turkey.”

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan federal commission that reviews violations of religious freedom, “The Turkish government continues to impose serious limitations on freedom of religion or belief, thereby threatening the continued vitality and survival of minority religious communities in Turkey."

The USCIRF also says, “Over the previous five decades, the [Turkish] state has, using convoluted regulations and undemocratic laws to confiscate hundreds of religious minority properties, primarily those belonging to the Greek Orthodox community, as well as Armenian Orthodox, Catholics, and Jews. … The state also has closed seminaries, denying these communities the right to train clergy.”

Aram Hamparian, director of the Armenian National Committee of America, told that Turkey’s human rights violations “are far-reaching and widespread, having been extensively documented by the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and many others.”

He added, “The Turkish Government must sincerely accept responsibility for the genocidal crimes that led to the confiscation of these churches, and then work – in partnership with Christian churches, minority communities, and key stakeholders in the international community -- to restore their rightful ownership.”

Hamparian noted that there were over 1,460 Armenian Christian church properties functioning prior to the Armenian Genocide in 1915 that have since been confiscated or destroyed, which would need to be returned to the Armenian Church. Additionally, he said there are church properties that would need to be returned to the Greek and Aramean (Syriac) churches.

Royce said at the committee hearing, “Continued persecution of the vulnerable Christian minority in Turkey threatens the survival of their religious tradition. The adoption of this amendment would support their struggle for religious freedom, a value central to basic human dignity, and a basic civil right.”

According to Berman, “The amendment calls on Turkey to make good on past transgressions and allow true freedom of religion to achieve the standards of democratic behavior to which it says and to which I believe it aspires. We want Turkey to allow its Christian citizens to worship exactly as they want, and to allow them to train their clergy exactly as they want.”

“We want Christians to have the right to preserve, reconstruct, and repair their churches and other communal buildings without hindrance or petty harassment as is the case in all other democracies,” said Berman.  “We want Turkey to return confiscated property to Christian communities and, at a minimum, to provide compensation for properties that can’t be recovered.”

The Turkish Embassy released a briefing in opposition to the resolution, stating that the resolution was “deeply regrettable because it unfairly distorts the facts on the ground while flatly overlooking Turkey’s efforts to promote religious freedom and tolerance.”

Further, the embassy said the use of the word “destruction” in the resolution was “absolutely wrong and deceptive again when applied to ancient or disused religious sites. Preserving the vast number of historical and religious sites that date back to the earliest times of human civilization is a tremendous challenge for any country. In this regard, it is unfair to allege that Turkey has ignored its Christian heritage.”

“Turkey takes pride in repeatedly providing safe haven to those fleeing religious persecution throughout history,” said the embassy briefing.

“Consequently, we respectfully recommend to all the members of the U.S. House of Representatives that they not become co-sponsors of this unfair and inaccurate resolution but rather contribute in other positive and constructive ways to Turkey’s ongoing efforts and positive gestures.”

During the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s discussion of the resolution, Berman added, “The adoption of this amendment would add a powerful voice, the voice of the United States Congress, in the defense of religious freedom for Christians in present-day Turkey and reinforce the traditional leadership of Congress in defending freedom of faith around the world.”

Speaking of the relationship between the Unites States and Turkey, Rep. Russ Carnahan, (D- Mo.) said, “Turkey has been a long-time ally and friend and so we can and should speak frankly to them about this.  We should recognize progress they have made, but we should also urge them to do more. They’ve been a key NATO ally, they are a key world economy, and they are, especially today, a key example of a moderate Muslim democratic country.”

He added, “We need them at the table.  We need to continue to urge them to do more.”

Hamparian said, “The United States … has a long and proud tradition of actively promoting and defending freedom of faith around the world.  Our own Bill of Rights safeguards religious freedom for Americans, and our longstanding leadership in championing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international covenants has helped protect freedom of faith across the globe.”

He cited several pieces of congressional legislation from the past 15 years that were designed to, like the Berman-Cicilline Amendment, demand religious freedom from foreign governments in countries like Cyprus, Lithuania, Romania and Vietnam.

Hamparian added, “To our knowledge, the Obama administration has not weighed in on this resolution.” contacted the White House press office several times for comment on this issue but did not receive any response before this story was posted. The Embassy of Turkey also did not comment before this story was posted.

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