US House Panel Tells Turkey to Safeguard Christian Heritage


WASHINGTON (RFE/RL) — In an amendment to a spending bill welcomed by Armenian-American lobby groups but opposed by Ankara, the House Foreign Affairs Committee said the Turkish authorities should “end all forms of religious discrimination” of the country’s Christian minorities.

The legislation says that they should “return to their rightful owners all Christian churches and other places of worship, monasteries, schools, hospitals, monuments, relics, holy sites, and other religious properties.” It says the Armenian, Greek and Syriac minorities must be able to “preserve, reconstruct, and repair” those properties “without hindrance or restriction.”

“Religious minorities are under grave threat in today’s Turkey,” the AFP news agency quoted Rep. Ed Royce, a Republican from California, as saying during a committee debate.

The Turkish government was quick to criticize the measure. “Turkey opposes the language in the measure because it presents a biased, one-sided perspective and wholly disregards the constructive steps Turkey has taken to safeguard and expand religious freedom and tolerance and to preserve places of worship belonging to Jews and Christians,” Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, said in a statement.

But the two main Armenian advocacy groups in Washington hailed the almost unanimous committee vote. Bryan Ardouny, executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America, singled out Royce and the two Democratic co-sponsors of the amendment for praise.

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One of them, Howard Berman of California, has been a key congressional backer of draft resolutions describing the World War I-era mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide.

The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) called the amendment a “powerful victory for religious freedom.” “Ninety six years after the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians, the Turkish Government has destroyed or confiscated the vast majority of their holy sites and places of worship,” the ANCA executive director, Aram Hamparian, said in a statement.

The measure was also welcomed by high-ranking representatives of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the United States. “I hope that this will be the first of many steps towards preserving Armenian Christian heritage in Turkey,” said Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, legate of a church diocese in the eastern U.S.

Ayvazian attended the committee debate together with several other Armenian-American clerics.

The eastern regions of modern-day Turkey were home to hundreds of Armenian churches built there since the early Middle Ages. The vast majority of them were destroyed, ransacked or turned into mosques during and after 1915 slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

One of the few surviving examples of the ancient Armenian civilization in the mountainous area, the 10th century church of Surp Khach (Holy Cross), was renovated by the Turkish government in 2007. The church perched on the legendary Akhtamar island in Lake Van saw its first mass in nearly a century last September.

Turkey — Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Movement Party or MHP (R), and provincial party chiefs offer their Friday prayers at an abandoned church-turned-mosque in the historical site of Ani in the Kars province, 01Oct2010

The authorities in Ankara also reluctantly agreed to allow the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul to restore a cross on its dome. But they have resisted calls for the church’s return to Turkey’s Armenian community.

The Akhtamar temple currently has the status of a state museum.

The Turkish government caused outrage in Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora later in 2010 when it allowed hundreds of Turkish nationalists to perform Muslim prayers in another historic Armenian church, the 11th century Holy Virgin Cathedral.

The imposing cathedral is located at the ruins of Ani, the capital of a medieval Armenian kingdom. It lies less than one kilometer from the Turkish-Armenian border.

Built by an Armenian royal dynasty in 1001 A.D., the cathedral has for centuries been regarded as a masterpiece of medieval Armenian architecture. According to official Turkish sources, Seljuk Sultan Alparslan converted it into a mosque when he captured Ani and surrounding regions in 1064. The Seljuks were driven out of much of historical Armenia a century later.

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