Sassounian: From Genocide Recognition to Reclaiming Church Properties

102-web1.jpgBy: Harut Sassounian
The Armenian-American community took a major step last week to reverse the consequences of the Armenian Genocide and end the Turkish government’s long-standing policy of erasing all traces of Armenian civilization from present-day Turkey.

Armenian inscriptions at the entrance of one of the churches in the historic Armenian city of Ani. (Photo by Khatchig Mouradian)

Going beyond mere acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide, some members of Congress have introduced a new resolution that urges “the Republic of Turkey to safeguard its Christian heritage and to return confiscated church properties.”

The sweeping House Resolution 306 calls on the Government of Turkey to:

“1) end all forms of religious discrimination;

2) allow the rightful church and lay owners of Christian church properties, without hindrance or restriction, to organize and administer prayer services, religious education, clerical training, appointments, and succession, religious community gatherings, social services, including ministry to the needs of the poor and infirm, and other religious activities;

3) return to their rightful owners all Christian churches and other places of worship, monasteries, schools, hospitals, monuments, relics, holy sites, and other religious properties, including movable properties, such as artwork, manuscripts, vestments, vessels, and other artifacts; and

4) 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, monasteries, schools, hospitals, monuments, relics, holy sites, and other religious properties within Turkey.”

This bipartisan resolution, sponsored by Cong. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Cong. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), was immediately endorsed by 30 of their House colleagues, 10 of them Republicans. This is a good start, as Republicans constitute the majority in the House and their support is crucial for the successful passage of the resolution. Significantly, Cong. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a long-time opponent of the Armenian Genocide resolution, was one of the first supporters of the resolution regarding the return of church properties.

It is not surprising that this resolution has such broad support, as it is hard to imagine that any member of Congress, the State Department or the Obama administration would oppose returning a religious building back to its proper owners. By contemporary societal standards, no one would accept the conversion of a church into a mosque or vice versa. Turkey’s devout leaders, as good Muslims, would be the first to acknowledge and uphold the sanctity of houses of worship.

Beyond building a strong bipartisan coalition in Congress, practically all religious denominations in America, be they Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish or Muslim, would support such a resolution. All ethnic groups, such as Latinos, Greek-Americans, Irish-Americans, Jewish-American, Arab-Americans, Afro-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Assyrian-Americans would also lend their support to this resolution.

The Armenian National Committee of America noted that the resolution intends “to highlight, confront, and eventually reverse decades of official Turkish policy of destroying Christian church properties, desecrating holy sites, discriminating against Christian communities, and denying of the right of Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Pontians, Arameans (Syriacs), and others to practice their faith in freedom.”

The right to religious freedom is not simply an internal Turkish issue. This right is protected by many international agreements, including the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne to which Turkey is a signatory. Turkey continues to violate Articles 41 and 42 of the Lausanne Treaty which obligate it to provide funding and facilities to non-Muslim minorities for educational, religious, and charitable purposes, and to protect their religious establishments. Regrettably, the House resolution makes no mention of these violations and Turkey’s obligations under the Lausanne Treaty.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which issues an annual report documenting violations of religious rights around the world, has placed Turkey on its “Watch List,” for the third year in a row. The Commission has found that “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 Turkish government also “continues to intervene in the internal governance and education of religious communities and to confiscate places of worship.”

In recent years, the House and Senate passed several resolutions calling on Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus, Lithuania, Romania, and Vietnam to protect houses of worship and return wrongfully confiscated properties belonging to religious minorities. In line with these resolutions, the House of Representatives should adopt Resolution 306, calling on the Turkish government to respect the right of worship for all Christian minorities and return to them their expropriated churches and other religious properties.