Offers weak responses regarding treatment of Christian communities
WASHINGTON—During his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Amb. Francis Ricciardone, President Obama’s nominee for a full term as Ambassador to Turkey, dodged around a series of pointed questions from Senator Menendez about U.S. policy on the Armenian Genocide, and offered weak responses to concerns raised by senators concerning the rights and welfare of the increasingly vulnerable Christian communities within Turkey’s present-day borders, reported the Armenian National Committee of America.
“Armenian Americans from New Jersey and across America appreciate the leadership and determination of Senator Menendez in seeking answers from Ambassador Ricciardone, and in demanding honesty from our government regarding the Armenian Genocide,” said Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the ANCA. “Sadly, we witnessed today one of our nation’s top diplomatic representatives reduced, once again, to playing word games to evade and avoid the truth that is so very plain for all to see. The truth is not a commodity, human rights are not for sale, and America’s stand against genocide should never be bartered away or, worse yet, surrender under threat from a foreign power.”
Ambassador Ricciardone is currently representing the United States in Ankara under a “recess” appointment made by the President after his nomination was blocked last year by then-Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS). Today’s appearance was his second before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Unless approved by the panel and the full Senate, his recess appointment will expire at the end of 2011.
In response to a question by Senator Menendez as to whether the U.S. has ever denied the Armenian Genocide, Amb. Ricciardone paused, and, rather than answering directly, referred to the “Medz Yeghern” [Great Crime], which he mispronounced,” stating, “I stand behind President Obama’s characterization of the ‘Yedz Meghern’ [sic], as the Armenians themselves call it – the tragic, murder of a million and a half men, women, and children marched to their deaths in 1915. But I stand behind our characterization of that and our efforts of what we are trying to do now.”
Sen. Menendez followed up by asking if the Ambassador agreed with President Obama’s previous statements as Senator Obama, in which he had properly characterized the Armenian Genocide as “genocide.” “I would not disagree with President Obama on his characterization of this, of course not,” stated Amb. Ricciardone, answering similarly and cautiously to questions related to past statements by Vice-President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton during their years in the Senate.
Sen. Menendez, once again, lamented the difficult position U.S. diplomats are placed in when they are prevented from properly referencing the Armenian Genocide. “Here we are again, playing with an incredibly difficult set of circumstances, where we have nominees to Armenia going to Armenian Genocide commemorations and never being able to use the word genocide; we have our Ambassador to Turkey, which is an important party to try to get beyond this and move forward for the future, but if you can’t recognize the historical facts you can’t get on to the future – in the same set of circumstances,” explained Senator Menendez. “You have our President, our Vice-President our Secretary of State – all who very clearly, as members of this body, recognized that there was an Armenian Genocide. It’s very difficult to understand how we move forward in that respect.”
Ricciardone’s Rosy Picture of Religious Freedom in Turkey
In response to Delaware Senator Chris Coons’ question as to steps have been taken to promote religious freedom in Turkey, Amb. Ricciardone was effusive in describing a Turkish Government attitude of tolerance toward minorities. In describing his discussions with Turkish officials about their attitude toward religious tolerance in Turkey, Amb. Ricciardone stated: “… Very interestingly, they [the Turkish Government] follow our debates about personal freedom and religious freedom and they say ‘Here is how you can understand this, American Ambassador. In your country, you have in recent years made a distinction between freedom of religion and the concept of freedom from religion. For too long in our modern republic we focused on preventing the intrusion of religion in our national life and political life. We are quite comfortable to be observant Muslims, please don’t call us Islamists, by the way,’ they tell us, ‘but to the extent someone is praying as a Christian or a Jew, it really doesn’t bother us at all – why should it? It’s no threat to the state, on the contrary, we are rather proud of our diversity and we happy to have them do it. As to their property issues, let us take a fresh look at this and make sure they get justice.’”
That assessment is sharply at odds with reports by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which raised the following alarm in its 2011 report: “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.”
In August, 2010, Turkish police were video-taped preventing children attempting to pray at Holy Cross Church on Akhtamar Island – forcing the children to leave the premises. Watch the video.
In June 2010, the head of the Catholic Church in Turkey Italian Bishop Luigi Padovese was stabbed to death in what many viewed as a premeditated murder that was religiously motivated. Turkey’s top Roman Catholic bishop Monsignor Ruggero Francheschini publicly accused Turkish “ultranationalists and religious fanatics” of being behind the slaying. Before his murder, Bishop Padovese had been petitioning for the status of the Church of St. Paul in Tarsus, Turkey to be changed from a museum into a functioning place of regular worship. Even though his appeals were echoed personally by the Pope, Turkey refused the request.
In the wake of continued religious intolerance in Turkey, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted 43-1 to call on Turkey to put an end to religious discrimination, allow prayer in confiscated Christian Churches and return those churches to their rightful owners.
An article posted in the Armenian Weekly Tuesday provides a partial listing of confiscated Armenian Churches and church properties.
Senators are expected to submit follow up questions to Amb. Ricciardone during the upcoming days. Senate Foreign Relations Committee consideration and vote on the nominee is not expected until after August Congressional Recess.