Growing Number of U.S. Representatives Demand Turkey’s Return of Churches
Turkish Government Lashes out at Adoption of Religious Freedom Measure
WASHINGTON—A growing number of Members of the House of Representatives have praised the passage this week of a landmark resolution calling upon Turkey to return the Christian church properties it stole through genocide, and to end its repression of the surviving members of the vast Christian civilizations that once represented a majority in the territory of the present-day Republic of Turkey, reported the Armenian National Committee of America.
Following the December 13th adoption of H.Res.306, Members of Congress including Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD), Janice Hahn (D-CA), Michael Grimm (R-NY), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Robert Dold (R-IL) and Joseph Crowley have added their voices to the call for expanded religious freedom in Turkey.
The measure, spearheaded by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Howard Berman (D-CA) was scheduled for House consideration by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, with the support of Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Ranking Member Berman, of the Foreign Affairs Committee. House Members speaking in support of the measure on the evening of the vote included Representatives Royce, Berman, Congressional Armenian Genocide Resolution lead cosponsor Adam Schiff (D-CA), Congressional Armenian Caucus CoChair Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Eliot Engel (D-NY). The measure was adopted by voice vote.
House Members spotlighted Turkey’s decades of repression of the Christian communities within modern-day Turkey’s borders, with many urging the Turkish government to recognize the genocide against the Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, and Syriac communities which served as the basis for confiscation of the vast majority of Christian churches. Excerpts of remarks by each of these members is provided below.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry Lashes Out at Congress for Passage of Religious Freedom Measure
Turkey’s response to House passage of H.Res.306 was swift, with Turkey’s Ambassador to the U.S. Namik Tan targeting the action on Twitter just moments after its passage. “HRes 306 is unfair, unjustified and uncalled for,” argued Tan in his Tweet. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry went further, with bombastic assertions about that government’s treatment of religious minorities. “The constitutional system in Turkey is based on the principle of equal treatment of all individuals before the law, regardless of their religion, race, color, ethnicity, language and other grounds,” noted Foreign Ministry release #294. “Accordingly, any claims of discrimination based on religion in Turkey are totally unfounded.” The statement went on, “More importantly, it is obvious that Turkey has a strong will both in the fight against discrimination on political and social fronts and for an inclusive approach to diversity.”
A handful of House Members did join Turkey in voicing opposition to the anti-religious discrimination measure including Turkey Caucus Co-Chair Ed Whitfield (R-KY), who was the sole Representative speaking out against the measure during its consideration. Others joining him in the days following the adoption of H.Res.306 included: Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), Rep. James Moran (D-VA), Rep. Greg Meeks (D-NY), and Rep. Stephen Cohen (D-TN). H.Res.306 was introduced in June, 2011, spearheaded by Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Howard Berman (D-CA). On July 20th, the House Foreign Affairs Committee adopted an abridged version of the measure as an amendment to the State Department Authorization Bill with a vote of 43 to 1 – the same version that was passed by the House earlier this week. Joining Representatives Royce and Berman in cosponsoring the measure were: Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Joe Baca (D-CA), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Bruce Braley (D-IA), Dennis Cardoza (D-CA), Judy Chu (D-CA), David Cicilline (D-RI), Jim Costa (D-CA), Joseph Crowley (D-NY), Jeff Denham (R-CA), Robert Dold (R-IL), Eliot Engel (D-NY), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Randy Forbes (R-VA), Barney Frank (D-MA), Elton Gallegly (R-CA), Scott Garrett (R-NJ), Michael Grimm (R-NY), Janice Hahn (D-CA), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Douglas Lamborn (R-CO), James Langevin (D-RI), Dan Lungren (R-CA), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), James McGovern (D-MA), Grace Napolitano (D-CA), Devin Nunes (R-CA), John Olver (D-MA), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Steven Rothman (D-NJ), Linda Sanchez (D-CA), John Sarbanes (D-MD), Adam Schiff (D-CA), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Niki Tsongas (D-MA), and Frank Wolf (R-VA).
Congressional Remarks In Support of H.Res.306
Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA): Religious tolerance has long been a problem for Turkey. Turkey has yet to remedy the desecration of the religious properties of over 2 million Armenians and Greeks and Assyrians and Syriacs over the last 100 years. Until these obligations are fulfilled, religious freedom will remain ellusive and, frankly, relations with the United States will suffer. Prime Minister Erdogan recently issued a decree to return confiscated church properties that were taken after 1936, but the majority of confiscated religious properties, of course, were taken prior to 1936. . . We are sending a signal today that Turkey should reassess the cutoff date, and I would suggest that outside pressure and actions like we are taking here today and reports like that of the religious commission have helped with what progress we have seen to date.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA): We want Turkey to follow through on its commitment to return confiscated property of Christian communities and to provide compensation for properties that can’t be recovered. We want Christian communities in Turkey to enjoy the same rights and privileges that religious minorities enjoy in this country… We want Turkey to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. This is not too much to ask. In fact, that is the minimum we must ask if Turkey is ever to join the ranks of the world’s fully free nations.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA): But the physical near-annihilation of the Armenian people was not enough to satisfy the Turks’ desire to wreak vengeance on Armenia, which was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion in AD 301. Their campaign against the Armenians was broader and was aimed at destroying not only the Armenian people but also their history, their culture, and their faith… When Ottoman forces began to massacre their Armenian neighbors 95 years ago, there were nearly 2,000 Armenian churches in what is now Turkey. Fewer than 100 remain standing and fully functioning today. One of the world’s oldest Christian communities has, in significant part, disappeared from its ancestral homeland.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA): The adoption of H. Res. 306 would add the powerful voice of the United States Congress to the defense of religious freedom for Christians in present-day Turkey and reinforce the traditional leadership of Congress in defending freedom of faith around the world… H. Res. 306 is urgently needed to address the destruction of Christian religious heritage as a result of the Turkish Government’s theft, desecration and disregard of ancient Christian sites and churches, many of them holding great significance to Christian heritage. In 2009, Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Christian Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and reported that Turkey’s Christians were second-class citizens and that he personally felt “crucified” by a state that wanted his church to die out. It is time to add the voice of the American Congress in an effort to make sure that Turkey meets its international responsibilities.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY): Mr. Speaker, I have become increasingly concerned with the direction of Turkey in the past few years. In particular, Turkey, which has such a profound connection with the birth and growth of Christianity, has today expropriated church properties, harassed worshipers, and refused to grant full legal status to some Christian groups.
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-MD): Mr. Speaker, I am saddened to report that the ancient Christian heritage in Turkey is being threatened with extinction… . When a government compromises the right of its citizens to peaceably assemble, the right of expression, and the right of independent thought, the people of such a country are not fully free. When a government takes the property of citizens without just compensation and due process of law, the people of that country are not free. And when a government discriminates against citizens on account of their religion and ethnic origins, again, freedom is denied. . . .While Turkey has taken some positive steps in recent times, freedom is not a matter of half measures. Our NATO ally must unequivocally and zealously defend the individual liberties of all its citizens.
Rep. Janice Hahn (D-CA): Wherever we see repression, wherever we see atrocities being swept under the rug, we have a moral duty to speak out. Members of NATO are no exception. Today in Turkey, beautiful and historic Armenian churches, monuments and monasteries lie in ruins—broken not by the sands of time, but by desecration, theft and dynamite. For too long, the U.S. has allowed Turkey to elude responsibility for the destruction of Armenian churches. With this resolution, Congress sends a stern message to Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan—the United States will not tolerate Turkish assaults on Armenian heritage and religious freedom. The passage of House Resolution 306 earlier this week was an important step towards justice for the Armenian people, but our work is unfinished. Until the U.S. and Turkey officially recognize the Armenian Genocide for what it was, I will continue to fight to correct the staggering injustice of soft-peddling the murder of 1.5 million men, women and children.
Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY): While Turkey considers itself a secular democracy, in reality this is simply not the case. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has classified Turkey one of the world’s top violators of religious freedom. Out of a population of roughly 76.8 million people, the country’s religious make-up is 99% Muslim (mainly Sunni) and 1% Christian, Bahai, and Jewish. . . Through its expropriation of church properties, continued harassment of worshippers, and refusal to grant full legal status under Turkish law to some Christian groups, the Republic of Turkey has failed to fulfill its obligation as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which requires “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”
Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV): Sadly, this resolution is necessary in order to address the tragic destruction of Christian religious heritage in Turkey. Churches in Turkey have been desecrated and destroyed. Just a century ago, there were over 2,000 Armenian churches in Turkey, but less than 100 remain standing and fully functioning today. . . As a nation founded on the principles of religious liberty, we must stand up against desecration of churches in Turkey, the closing of seminaries, the intimidation of religious minorities and the confiscation of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s property. I urge support for this resolution and yield back.
Rep. Robert Dold (R-IL): In the United States we enjoy the freedom to worship, but throughout the world billions of people do not have the liberty to practice this fundamental human right. For generations, Armenian, Greek, Catholic, and Jewish minorities were punished for practicing their faith in the Ottoman Empire and modern-day Turkey and many of their sacred religious sites have been confiscated and destroyed. I am heartened by the passage of this resolution, but also will continue to push for the United States to recognize the Armenian genocide that was perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY): The United States was founded in part on the belief that each person should be able to practice their religion without interference from the government, and we can all be proud whenever the United States stands up for these freedoms throughout the world… The fact is, Turkey can and must do more to protect its religious minorities. That includes protecting and returning properties that were confiscated or otherwise taken from the Greek and Armenian Orthodox communities, as well as other properties… It also means that religious minorities must be free to practice their religion – and rules and laws on the books should be strengthened and complemented by clear signals from the government that minorities are welcome.