Secretary of State’s response to questions from Rep. Berman unfairly credits Ankara for hollow reforms, empty rhetoric, token actions taken to date
WASHINGTON—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in written responses to questions submitted by Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA), the Ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, offered inordinate and undeserved praise for Turkey for taking “concrete steps” to return a tiny fraction of stolen religious properties, but did commit to continuing to both press Ankara to return additional properties confiscated from minority religious communities to their rightful owners, reported the Armenian National Committee of America.
Representative Berman’s question, which referenced the Return of Churches resolution, H.Res.306, that he helped pass on the floor of the U.S. House, pressed the Secretary as to whether she was “satisfied that Turkey is committed to returning confiscated Christian churches and fully respecting the Armenian and other Christian populations that have lived on these lands since biblical times?” In her response, Secretary Clinton overstated Turkey’s actual actions and offered unmerited praise for its stated intentions, which, even if fully implemented, would return less than 5% of stolen church properties to the rightful owners among Christian and other religious communities. She did however, in keeping with the letter and spirit of H.Res.306, and its Senate companion, S.Res.392, promise that the Department of State “will continue to remain vigilant of the situation for religious communities and encourage needed reforms in the country.”
“We join with Armenian Americans from California and across the United States in thanking Congressman Berman for raising these vitally important issues with Secretary Clinton,” said Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the ANCA. “While we certainly appreciate that Secretary Clinton – in accord with the letter and spirit of H.Res.306 – has committed the United States to continuing to press Turkey to return stolen religious properties to their rightful owners, we remain deeply troubled that her undeserved praise for Ankara’s still hollow promises of reform, its political diversions, and its token actions reflect a lack of seriousness on the part of the Department State regarding the full return by Turkey of the fruits of its genocidal crimes against Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Pontians, Arameans, Syriacs, and others.”
Withdrawal of Snipers:
In response to a second question from Congressman Berman regarding Azerbaijan’s opposition to an OSCE Minsk Group proposal, backed by both Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh, for the withdrawal of snipers from the front lines, Secretary Clinton restated U.S. support for pulling back snipers as a step toward decreasing regional tensions. The rest of her response, which again reflected the Administration’s policy of artificial even-handedness in dealing with one-sided threats and aggression coming from Baku, offered generic calls on “all sides” to “improve the atmosphere for negotiations, prevent unnecessary casualties, and strengthen implementation of the ceasefire.”
In his third question to Secretary Clinton, Representative Berman asked for an update on progress the Administration has made in expanding U.S.-Armenia trade and investment in recent years. The Secretary responded by offering an overly optimistic perspective on the limited work of the U.S.-Armenia Joint Economic Taskforce (USATF) in growing bilateral commercial relations. Her answer, while consistent with the President’s campaign commitments to expand U.S.-Armenia economic ties, fails to reflect the lack of material progress over the past three years in expanding trade and investment, through the negotiation of a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, a Double Tax Treaty, or other bilateral accords, commercial programs, and targeted trade initiatives. The one specific future project she cited was U.S. sponsorship of a “Reverse Trade Mission” to the United States for up to 10 Armenian businesspeople from the information technology sector. This mission will provide Armenian entrepreneurs a chance to explore opportunities to buy American products, sell Armenian products, and build mutually beneficial relationships with U.S. counterparts.
The complete text of the Berman-Clinton exchange is provided below.
On December 13, 2011, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on Turkey to return confiscated Christian churches and properties (H. Res. 306). The resolution calls on the Secretary of State “in all official contacts with Turkish leaders and other Turkish officials . . . [to] emphasize that Turkey should (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 . . . (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.” Are you satisfied that Turkey is committed to returning confiscated Christian churches and fully respecting the Armenian and other Christian populations that have lived on these lands since biblical times?
While I recognize religious minority groups continue to face concerning challenges in Turkey, I am encouraged by concrete steps the Government of Turkey has taken over the past year to return properties to religious communities.
In August 2011 the government issued a decree allowing religious minorities to apply to reclaim churches, synagogues, and other properties confiscated 75 years ago. Several properties have already been returned to the 24 religious minority foundations that have applied thus far. Separately, in November 2010, the government of Turkey returned the Buyukada orphanage to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in line with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.
Turkish officials at the most senior levels have told me they are committed to reopening the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Halki Seminary in the near future. In March, Deputy PM Bekir Bozdag stated, “There are no laws in Turkey against opening a seminary to train Christian clerics; the state will also support such a move.”
The government is redrafting its 1982 military-drafted constitution to fully embrace individual rights, including those of religious and ethnic minorities. Significantly, Parliament speaker Cemil Cicek reached out to Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian and Syriac leaders during this process. In response, on February 20, the Ecumenical Patriarch addressed the Turkish Parliament for the first time in the history of the republic, noting the positive changes taking place in Turkey: “Unfortunately, there have been injustices toward minorities until now. These are slowly being corrected and changed. A new Turkey is being born.”
These steps are encouraging and we are urging the Government of Turkey to continue returning other properties confiscated from minority religious communities to their rightful owners, as well as moving forward with needed legal reforms in its Constitutional redrafting process. We will continue to remain vigilant of the situation for religious communities and encourage needed reforms in the country.
There have been increasing ceasefire violations in Nagorno-Karabakh, with the most recent resulting in the death of an Armenian soldier. Azerbaijan’s President has repeatedly stated that only the first stage of war is over. In January of this year, President Aliyev said, “It’s not a frozen conflict, and it’s not going to be one.” The three Minsk Group Co-Chairs have all called the pulling back of snipers as a crucial step for decreasing tensions. It has been at least a year since both Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh agreed to this proposal, but Azerbaijan has not. What steps is the Administration taking to encourage Azerbaijan’s acceptance of this important proposal to prevent war from resuming in this vital area for U.S. interests?
As a Co-Chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, the United States remains deeply committed to helping the sides in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict reach a lasting and peaceful settlement. The U.S. has emphasized that the parties should show restraint in both their public statements and on the ground to avoid misunderstandings and unintended consequences. We reiterate at every opportunity that there is no military solution to the conflict and that only a peaceful settlement will lead to security, stability, and reconciliation in the region. We regret any loss of life and continue to call upon the sides to take steps – including the withdrawal of snipers – to improve the atmosphere for negotiations, prevent unnecessary casualties, and strengthen implementation of the ceasefire.
Can you give us an update on progress the Administration has made in expanding U.S.-Armenia trade and investment in recent years?
The United States remains committed to expanding our economic relations with Armenia. The principle vehicle for addressing issues of trade and investment with Armenia is the U.S.-Armenia Joint Economic Taskforce (USATF). Established in 1999, the USATF meets annually to deepen economic ties between Armenia and the United States, advance market reforms in Armenia, and discuss opportunities for U.S. assistance to contribute to Armenia’s long-term economic development. The task force is an open forum to discuss issues of concern and interest to both countries.
The most recent USATF was held in late September 2011 and focused on promoting trade and investment, protecting intellectual property rights, and enhancing the business climate in Armenia.
The United States continues to seek avenues, through our assistance programming, to promote greater linkages between American and Armenian private sector firms with the goal of increasing the volume of bilateral trade and investment. For example, in the coming months the U.S. will sponsor a “Reverse Trade Mission” to the United States for up to 10 Armenian businesspeople from the information technology sector. This mission will provide Armenian entrepreneurs a chance to explore opportunities to buy American products, sell Armenian products, and build mutually beneficial relationships with U.S. counterparts.
Armenia recently completed its five-year compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). That program, with its focus on the agricultural sector, laid the groundwork for increasing agricultural exports and greater private sector investment in the sector, and will have a significant long-term impact on trade.