Pallone Speaks Out Against Converting Monastery

WASHINGTON–New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone took to the floor of the US House of Representatives on March 19 to express his deeply held concerns about Turkish attempts to convert a 10th century Armenian monastery located in the Turkish-occupied northern portion of Cyprus–into a hotel.

Congressman Pallone first outlined the ongoing Turkish efforts to convert St. Magar Monastery into a tourist hotel–and then discussed the international campaign to stop the desecration of this holy site. Describing the Turkish actions as "simply unacceptable," he asked his House colleagues "to join in appealing to UNESCO to take a stand against this wanton disregard for a site with great religious–historic and cultural significance. I will also be calling on our Administration to raise this issue with the government of Turkey. While our list of grievances with Turkey is a long one–perhaps this issue can serve to convince the Turkish regime that it must have more respect for its neighbors."

Rep. Pallone–co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues also discussed the first round of presidential elections in Armenia and paid tribute to the memory of His Holiness Karekin II–Patriarch of Constantinople.

Rep. Frank Pallone–Jr. Statement in the House of Representatives Thursday–March 19–1998

I rise to address the House and the American people about recent events affecting the Armenian people.

This is an important week for the Republic of Armenia. On Monday–March 16th–the first round of elections for the Presidency of Armenia took place. Turnout was approximately 66 percent. A run-off election between the two top vote getters will be held on Monday–March 30th.

Mr. Speaker–this election is an important development in Armenian democracy. Since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991–Armenia has worked to establish the procedures and institutions of civil society–while adopting economic reforms. Despite being surrounded by hostile neighbors that have imposed economically devastating blockades–Armenia has overcome years of oppression and dictatorship to become a functioning democracy.

When former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan–who led the nation through the early years of independence–resigned last month–the succession of the Prime Minister to the post of Acting President was held in a peaceful–orderly and lawful way. Although it is disappointing to see the extremely critical and often inaccurate portrayal provided by much of the media–I am proud to say–Mr. Speaker–that Armenia has been one of the true success stories of the former Soviet Empire–and this week’s elections are further proof of that.

As we celebrate the progress of democracy in Armenia–we cannot forget the suffering that has been and continues to be visited upon the Armenian people by Turkey. The latest Turkish assault on Armenia’s takes the form of an affront to the history–culture and religion of Armenia’s in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. Many Members of this Body–including myself–have been very critical of the Turkish occupation of Cyprus and the fact that Turkey has not been willing to head international calls that it withdraw from Cyprus. The latest development is that the ancient Sourp Magar Monastery–referred to as the "Armenian Monastery," near Kyrenia in the northern part of Cyprus which Turkey illegally occupies–is now to be converted into a tourist hotel. That’s right–Mr. Speaker–a monastery that dates to 1000 A.D.–which was bombed during Turkey’s invasion of the island 24 years ago–and which has been plundered and neglected–will be restored for the purpose of turning the property into a hotel.

I have to say Mr. Speaker that I’m pleased to note that this desecration has not gone unchallenged. The Honorable Nikitas Kaklaman’s–Member of the European Parliament from Greece–has officially raised a question with the European Parliament–which I would like to quote from: "This plan proves that the Turkish occupation authorities do not respect the cultural heritage of the island–and–obviously the monumen’s of Christianity in the north part of Cyprus. I would like the European Commission to inform me about the way it intends to react against the practice of a brutal regime–which is supported by 40,000 Turkish soldiers who occupy almost 40 percent of Cyprus–something that has lasted for 24 years."

Catholicos Aram I of the Armenian Church of Lebanon–has addressed a letter of complaint to the Executive Director of the United Nations Education–Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)–also to the Secretary General of the UN–the President of Cyprus–the President of Armenia–the International Religious Council–the National Assembly of Armenia and the Catholicos of All Armenia’s–and other organizations–and the Catholicos Aram I is calling the restoration and conversion scheme sacrilegious and non-humanitarian–a violation "of our religious and cultural values."

Mr. Speaker–the plans for the Sourp Magar monastery are consistent with the Turkish disrespect of both Armenian and Greek holy places in Cyprus and throughout Asia Minor. Turkey has tried to remove traces of Greek and Armenian history–changed place names and generally tried to assert Turkish supremacy.

And–I hope the European Commission and other international organizations will make it clear to Turkey that this type of behavior is simply not acceptable. I am also asking my colleagues in this House to join me in appealing to UNESCO to take a stand against this wanton disregard for a site with great religious–historic and cultural significance. I will also be calling on our Administration to raise this issue with the government of Turkey. While our list of grievances with Turkey is a long one–perhaps this issue can serve to convince the Turkish regime that it must have more respect for its neighbors.

Finally–Mr. Speaker–I wanted to pay tribute this afternoon to a great Armenian religious leader who labored for decades under Turkish rule. This is Patriarch Karekin II–the spiritual leader of Turkey’s Armenian Christians–who died on March 10th of this year at the age of 71 after a long illness. An estimated 50,000 ethnic Armenia’s live in Turkey–the majority of them members of the Patriarch’s church. Karekin II was the 83rd holder of the position of Patriarch of Istanbul–obviously a title with a great historical legacy. The Armenian Patriarchate will begin the process of electing a successor on April 14th.

Mr. Speaker–Armenia was the first Christian state–and the church continues to play an important unifying role in the life of the Armenian community–both in Armenia itself and throughout the Armenian Diaspora including here in the United States. And–I join Armenia’s everywhere in paying tribute to this great leader and mourning his passing.

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