Aram I Welcomes Clinton Call for Turkey to Return Properties

Catholicos Aram I with ANCA Chairman Ken Hachikian

WASHINGTON—His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, has commended U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement of concern regarding Turkey’s confiscation of religious properties, and offered assistance in securing their rightful return, reported the Armenian National Committee of America.

In a November 5th letter to Secretary Clinton, His Holiness Aram I referenced earlier correspondence between the Secretary and the ANCA regarding confiscated church properties, in which she had expressed “concern regarding the restoration of previously confiscated properties to religious minority communities.”

“We warmly welcome this courageous initiative,” stated His Holiness, and went on to note: “The Holy See of Cilicia, which was violently uprooted from its centuries-old Seat, remains the legal owner and spiritual steward for numerous churches, monasteries, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, orphanages, monuments, cemeteries, and other religious sites and properties across the Armenian lands currently within the borders of present-day Turkey. These properties, as well as countless movable assets – among them spiritual and cultural treasures – were illegally seized from the Armenian Church by the Ottoman Turkish Empire starting in the 1890’s and extending through the entire Armenian Genocide (1915). Indeed, the tragic history of mass murder in Turkey, as well as the confiscation and desecration of religious sites is well documented by governments, churches and academic institutions around the world, including, we understand, in the vast archival holdings of the U.S. Department of State.”

His Holiness concluded his letter by offering “assistance in this worthy endeavor as your government seeks to secure the return by Turkey of confiscated religious properties to their rightful owners.”  The complete text of His Holiness Aram I’s letter is provided below.

“We greatly value the profound and powerful spiritual leadership of Vehapar Aram I, the Great House of Cilicia, and the Prelacies of the Armenian Apostolic Church in America in seeking the rightful return of stolen church properties,” said ANCA Chairman Ken Hachikian.  “Neither time nor terror diminishes the rights of the Armenian nation.  For, just as there is no legal statute of limitations on genocide, so too is there no moral limit upon our pursuit of justice.”

Turkey’s Confiscation of Religious Properties in the Spotlight
Turkey’s illegal confiscation of Christian properties has been a matter of growing concern both in the European Court of Human Rights and the U.S. Congress.  Over the years, the leadership of religious communities in Turkey have brought a series of cases before the European Courts, with the Turkish Government being compelled, in certain cases, to return selected properties.

Over the past six months, Reps. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Howard Berman (D-CA) spearheaded Congressional legislation (H.Res.306) calling on Turkey to return stolen Christian properties and allow freedom of worship in these historic sites.  Within a month of its introduction, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs adopted a similar amendment to the House Foreign Relations Authorization bill, by an overwhelming vote of 43 to 1.  Additional information on the vote and H.Res.306 is available at http://www.anca.org/return

In August, Turkey’s confiscation of Christian churches became a central issue of contention in the confirmation process for U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone.  In response to written questions submitted by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Amb. Ricciardone erroneously stated that “most of the Christian churches functioning prior to 1915 are still operating as churches. Some churches of significance operate as museums. The remaining have fallen into disrepair or were converted to mosques for lack of use.”  Following outcry from a series of Armenian American religious leaders including His Eminence Oshagan Choloyan and His Eminence Moushegh Mardirossian, Prelates of the Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of the Eastern and Western United States, respectively, as well as His Eminence Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Armenian Diocese of Eastern United States, Amb. Ricciardone offered a limited correction to his statement.

By the end of August, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan, fearing mounting losses at the European Court of Human Rights and the implications of the recent progress of Congressional legislation, issued a decree which would, if implemented, return Christian and Jewish religious properties confiscated after 1936.  The decision would affect less than 1% of religious properties confiscated by the Turkish government since the Armenian Genocide.

Secretary Clinton, in a September 14 letter to the ANCA, referenced Turkey’s confiscation of religious properties, noting: “We continue to stress the importance we attach to religious freedom in Turkey with Turkish leaders. We also continue to raise our concerns regarding the restoration of previously confiscated properties to religious communities with Turkish authorities at the highest levels. In this regard, we will be following closely the implementation of the Government of Turkey’s August 27 decree to return all confiscated immovable property belonging to 162 officially recognized non-Muslim religious community foundations in Turkey.”

The ANCA has offered to assist the U.S. State Department in seeking to secure the rightful return by Turkey of stolen religious properties to their rightful owners including the Holy See of Cilicia, the Holy See of Etchmiadzin, the Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Constantinople, and the Armenian Catholic and Armenian Evangelical churches.

Complete Text of Aram I’s letter is provided below:

Dear Secretary Clinton,

A few days ago we returned from a pontifical visit to the Armenian community of California under the jurisdiction of the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia. We were proud, indeed, to be a witness to so many achievements which have been realized in our community during the last few years in all spheres of its life.

In fact, during our meetings with the community organizations, the Armenian National Committee of America shared with us your letter of September 14, 2011 in which you re-affirmed the support of the United States of America for religious freedom in Turkey, announcing at the same time the commitment of your government to raising your “concern regarding the restoration of previously confiscated properties to religious minority communities with Turkish authorities at the highest levels”. We warmly welcome this courageous initiative.

The Holy See of Cilicia, which was violently uprooted from its centuries-old Seat, remains the legal owner and spiritual steward for numerous churches, monasteries, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, orphanages, monuments, cemeteries, and other religious sites and properties across the Armenian lands currently within the borders of present-day Turkey. These properties, as well as countless movable assets – among them spiritual and cultural treasures – were illegally seized from the Armenian Church by the Ottoman Turkish Empire starting in the 1890’s and extending through the entire Armenian Genocide (1915). Indeed, the tragic history of mass murder in Turkey, as well as the confiscation and desecration of religious sites is well documented by governments, churches and academic institutions around the world, including, we understand, in the vast archival holdings of the U.S. Department of State.

In a letter to the Prime Minister of Turkey, Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdogan dated August 31, 2011, we observed that the August 26, 2011 announcement of Turkey’s government in respect to the confiscated properties of religious minorities represents only a small, as yet unrealized, step toward justice. We also underscored that the Armenian people will never stop demanding justice from Turkey and full restoration of their national rights.

Dear Mrs. Secretary,

We support your firm stand and offer you our assistance in this worthy endeavor as your government seeks to secure the return by Turkey of confiscated religious properties to their rightful owners.

Prayerfully,
Aram I, Catholicos of Cilicia
5 November 2011
Antelias, Lebanon

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