43-1: Safeguarding Christian Heritage in Modern Day Turkey

ANCA interns Armine Sargsyan (right) and Tereza Yeremyan flank Rep. Ed Royce

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.


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  1. The Truth said:

    Nothing about our Christianly identity starting from 301 BUT I would suggest rather ‎speaking about safeguarding Armenian Heritage in Turkey and in the world!‎
    ‎ (Instead of Christian)- Armenian nation and a unique Armenian culture (including songs, ‎dance etc) did exist before “Christianity” – This is not good when e.g festivals like our old ‎new year -“Navasatrd” or the like being ignored or being manipulated by the church… We ‎should be proud of our pre Christianity history and protect them including the Armenian ‎cuisine..‎

    This is sad that Armenian dance groups and musicians are traveling or being porously invited ‎to “Anatolia/Turkey” (and) showing to “Kurds” and “Turks” how to dance and how to make ‎this and that food, while Armenian government has no program to protect our culture heritage ‎against manipulation and hijackers to our east and west- Even in many cafes in Yerevan- ‎Armenian café is being presented as “Turkish café”! ‎

    • Avery said:

      Rep. Ron Paul from Texas. He is a good man. Nothing to do with Armenians. He votes against any foreign-related bill. That’s just the way he is. He votes against any foreign aid to Turkey also. And foreign aid to Israel.

      He just feels US should not get involved in other countries’ business.

      • manooshag said:

        I like what I saw of Ron Paul on TV… Republican candidates for USA president.
        Funny, the medias do not mention him. Yet, he was only 1% behind Bachmann in the audience voting…

  2. Brett said:

    This law is just a scheme to divide Turkey and carve the borders. The churches in Turkey are protected as Riccardione said and you guys cannot attack Riccardione just because he stated the FACTS.

    • Avery said:

      Right you are Brett.

      And it is very ingenious, because Turkophile and Turk-bought members of US Congress were terrified to vote against it. Imagine what would their opponents say at the next election: “so-and-so is Anti-Christian, he/she voted against protection of Christians in Muslim counties….”
      US electorate is about 90% Christian, so it would be virtual suicide.

      And you are right about the carving up part: US, Europe, and Israel don’t want a strong and dangerous Islamic country next door to Europe and Israel. They can read: AKP was voted in with 50% of the vote. Turkey has abandoned the artificial secularism of Kemal and is returning to its Ottoman Islamist roots. You can thank your PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

      What will happen if the West starts giving modern weapons to PKK ? How will you fight 25-30 million Kurd & Zaza population base inside Turkey ?

      The souls of the 2 Million Armenians your ancestors exterminated are smiling: payback time is coming.

      • Brett said:

        We all know you want Turkey to go back to Islamist roots, because you want to kill Muslims in Anatolia, you killed Muslims in Anatolia, and you want to vilify Muslims in Anatolia. You guys are haters and bigots and you know it. AKP will be banned, don’t worry, and CHP will gain power once again.

        Btw, I was born and raised in the states. I don’t live in Turkey nor do I speak a single word of Turkish. No one is going to give weapons to PKK (aka the Al-Qaida of Turkey). Btw, there are many Kurds who fight in the Turkish army. Infact, my 1/2 Kurdish cousin nearly dodged death because he was a outspoken critic against the PKK. Saying all Kurds are PKK is saying all Muslims are for Bin Laden, is saying all Mexicans are for La Raza, and all Whites are for the Ku Klux Klan.

        None of the congressional candidates are Turk-bought, they just support the Turkish communities who are bullied by racist Armenian fanatics. They just studied the facts and believe that 1915-1923 was a CIVIL WAR rather then a genocide and they believe Turkey has a right to protect it’s borders. You guys started massacreing unarmed innocent Muslims so you guys will have to pay to.

        These are the facts so do not hide it either.