BY: ARMINE SARGSYAN
USF Graduate Student – Class of 2012
ANCA Leo Sarkisian Intern – 2011
When applying for the Leo Sarkisian internship, I had never imagined that my summer would be packed with so many exciting and enlightening events — the ANCA Leadership Conference; the confirmation hearings for the US ambassadorial nominees to Armenia and Turkey; meetings with the Armenian Ambassador and NKR representative to the US; and numerous other hearings and lectures. Perhaps the highlight of the summer was on July 20th, the day the House Foreign Affairs Committee adopted a landmark amendment, presented by Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) and Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), that calls upon the Government of Turkey to end religious discrimination and return all stolen Christian churches and other religious properties to their rightful owners. The amendment is based on H. Res. 306, spearheaded by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Berman, which has the support of over 30 of their House colleagues. I was in the room when Rep. Berman began discussion of the amendment and listened attentively to the 45 minutes of debate that led to an overwhelming 43 to 1 vote in favor of the measure. It was a historic moment.
Although Turkey is a secular state, there have been continued reports of discrimination and abuse based on religious belief or practice, as well as routine confiscation of Christian properties through discriminatory laws. The 2007 International Religious Freedom Report stated that religious minorities in Turkey are denied positions in governmental institutions because of their religious beliefs. In fact, Turkey has been on the International Religious Freedom “Watch List” for three consecutive years because of discrimination and abuse based on religion.
Another issue is the desecration of Christian churches in Turkey. As Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) mentioned in his speech during the markup for the State Department Authorization Bill (H. Res. 2583), “of the two thousand Armenian churches which existed in early 1900s, less than a hundred remain standing and functioning today.” Those remaining churches are in desperate need for restorations, or they will soon vanish completely. Even though today Turkey allows for Christians to reclaim confiscated church properties, the process is arduous, and a significant portion of the property has been sold to third parties, or is simply left in neglect.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking example of this destruction of churches is in Ani. Once called the “City of 1,001 Churches,” Ani today is in ruins due to vandalism, earthquakes, and cultural genocide. The churches are left to deteriorate and the city is on the verge of destruction. Last December, Elle Turkey’s editorial spread was photographed at the ruins of Ani, which was met with much criticism from Armenians around the world. Using the ruins of Ani as a backdrop for the photo shoot glamorized the ruins and omitted the sad history of genocide behind it. The photo spread neglected the fact that Ani is a ghost city because of the Armenians being driven out of their homes and massacred almost a century ago.
As proof of its religious tolerance, the Turkish government brags that it has restored the historic Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island. However, instead of returning the holy site to the Armenian community and allowing religious services, the church was turned into a secular museum where services can only be held once a year, and only by permission of the Turkish Government. In fact, just last year, a group of children who wished to offer a prayer at Holy Cross were forced out by Turkish police. Today, this historic church, which was once the seat of an Armenian Catholicosate from the 12th to 19th centuries, and what is often depicted as a symbol of Armenian Christianity in Western Armenia, is reduced to a mere tourist attraction.
The Turkish government and its multi-million dollar lobbyists in Washington, DC fought hard not to have the amendment included in the Bill. In fact, just two days before the vote, the Turkish Embassy sent out an email to the offices of the House Foreign Affairs Committee members urging them not to include the language of H. Res. 306 as an amendment to the Bill. That exact same text was reiterated – verbatim – by Turkish American groups in their so-called “grassroots” messages to Congress.
Although a skirmish has been won, the effort to secure the return of Christian Churches to their rightful owners is far from over. H. Res. 2583, to which the “return of churches” amendment has been added, has yet to reach the House Floor and similar Senate action is yet to begin. This was an important step taken by US legislators to urge the government of Turkey to be more tolerant towards Christian minorities and give back ancient religious properties to their original owners: a step that will surely open the door for more discussions of religious freedom violations in Turkey in the near future.