BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
The House Foreign Affairs Committee adopted a strongly-worded measure on July 20, pressing Turkey to return all Christian church properties “to their rightful owners.”
By an overwhelming 43-1 vote, the congressional panel adopted a sweeping amendment to the State Department’s Foreign Relations Authorization Act, urging “the Secretary of State in all official contacts with Turkish leaders and other Turkish officials to emphasize that Turkey should”:
1. End all religious discrimination;
2. Allow the rightful church and lay owners of Christian church properties to perform religious and social 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, including artwork, manuscripts, vestments, vessels, and other artifacts; and
4. Allow the rightful church and lay owners of Christian church properties to repair all churches and other places of worship, monasteries, schools, hospitals, monuments, relics, holy sites, and other religious properties within Turkey.
Despite intensive efforts by Turkey’s Ambassador in Washington, Turkish and Azerbaijani organizations, and lobbying firms hired by Ankara, almost all members of the Committee, including Turkey’s staunchest supporters, voted in favor of the amendment, dealing Turkey a devastating defeat. The single negative vote was cast by Cong. Ron Paul (R-TX) because of his isolationist ideology and not his support for Turkey!
This near unanimous vote did not come as a surprise to me, as I had long advocated the passage of such a measure realizing that Members of Congress could not possibly vote against religious freedom. All fifteen Members of Congress who spoke during the hearing indicated their support for the amendment. Here are excerpts from some of their remarks:
Cong. Howard Berman (D-CA), who offered the amendment jointly with Cong. David Cicilline (D-RI), stated: “We want Turkey to return confiscated property to Christian communities and at a minimum to provide compensation for properties that can’t be recovered…. In this particular area, their [Turks’] practices for many years…have been atrocious.”
Cong. Brad Sherman (D-CA): “This amendment is urgently needed to address the vast destruction of Christian religious heritage as a result of the Turkish government’s theft, desecration, and disregard of ancient Christian holy sites and churches.”
Cong. Dan Burton (R-IN), one of the staunchest supporters of Turkey: “I do support the amendment. I do support religious freedom, and I hope that this amendment does pass.”
Cong. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), co-chair of the Turkish Congressional Caucus: “Religious freedom is a tenet of American philosophy and it is a cardinal of our American values. I look forward to supporting the language.”
Cong. Ed Royce (R-CA), co-sponsor of House Resolution 306 which formed the basis for the proposed amendment: “Turkey is identified as a country among the world’s top violators of religious freedom…. So we urge Turkey to return all confiscated church properties taken from these religions that were frankly stolen.”
Cong. Eliot Engel (D-NY): “Turkey is an ally in NATO, and we recognize that. I wish frankly that they would act more like an ally to the United States than they have lately. They really have gone astray…. Their Foreign Minister has set out a policy of Islamism and has moved away from the European Union, the West, and the United States, and has behaved very poorly frankly with the flotilla and Israel and the whole bit.”
Turkey’s Ambassador to the U.S., Namik Tan, disingenuously attributed the setback suffered by his country to the work of “radical Armenians.” He must have forgotten that the Turkish government is the one paying millions of dollars to lobbying firms each year to influence Members of Congress, and that 43 out of 44 Foreign Affairs Committee members, including Turkey’s staunchest supporters, could not possibly be in the pockets of a handful of “radical Armenians.”
Turkish leaders have not made a public statement after the adoption of the amendment, in order to hide this embarrassing episode. Surprisingly, Armenian government officials have not commented either on this issue. Obama administration officials have also remained silent and refrained from overt efforts to block the amendment in view of its overwhelming bipartisan support.
While Armenian, Assyrian and Greek-Americans have won the first skirmish, they have not yet won the final battle. The Authorization Bill along with this amendment will next go to the full House for approval. A similar Bill has to be adopted by the Senate. A joint committee of both houses will then attempt to reconcile the differences between the two versions. Turkish lobbyists and the Obama administration still have an opportunity to remove the amendment from the larger Bill. Supporters of the amendment must remain vigilant, urging their House and Senate representatives to vote in favor of keeping the church amendment in the Authorization Bill.
Even though the amendment has no legally binding effect, it is a moral victory for all those who cherish religious freedom and a major political success for the Armenian-American community which went toe to toe against the mighty Turkish lobbying machine and dealt it a devastating blow. The amendment also exposes the alarming condition of Christian churches in Turkey, paving the way for other countries and international organizations, such as the Council of Europe and UNESCO, to support their restoration.
Yet, the most effective way of forcing Turkey to return the confiscated Christian churches to their rightful owners is by filing lawsuits in the European Court of Human Rights. The Turkish government has accepted the jurisdiction of that court and has readily complied with its verdicts.