WASHINGTON — In its final hours, the Trump Administration signed a disastrous bilateral U.S.-Turkey Memorandum of Understanding granting Turkey legal rights over the vast religious-cultural heritage of the region’s indigenous peoples and other minority populations, reported the Armenian National Committee of America.

The agreement comes in response to a request by the Government of Turkey, submitted over a year ago — a move strongly opposed by the ANCA, Hellenic American Leadership Council, and In Defense of Christians (IDC) and a host of cultural rights and museum groups including the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), the Committee for Cultural Policy (CCP), the Global Heritage Alliance (GHA), and the International Association of Professional Numismatists (IAPN), among others.

“The Trump Administration — in its final hours — gifted Turkey the legal rights to claim the vast religious and cultural heritage of the region’s indigenous peoples and minority populations – among them Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, Arameans, Maronites, Jews and Kurds,” said ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian. “This reckless and irresponsible move was done over the protests of the ANCA, the Hellenic American Leadership Council, and In Defense of Christians by an Administration well aware that Turkey has openly, unapologetically, and systematically spent the past two centuries destroying minorities, desecrating their holy sites, and erasing even their memory from the landscape of their ancient, indigenous homelands.”

Hellenic American Leadership Council Executive Director Endy Zemenides concurred. “In his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken correctly identified Turkey as a ‘so-called strategic partner’ of the United States.  The fact that the present State Department ignored both the divergence in strategic interest and, most importantly, democratic values and signed a cultural agreement with a Turkey that has demonstrated the intent to wipe out its Christian minorities and their heritage is a travesty.  Those that participated in the signing of this agreement are potentially complicit in the continuation of Turkey’s oppression of its Christians.  We will work with the incoming Secretary and Administration to ensure that this agreement is indeed effectuated in such a way that actually protects Christian heritage in Turkey,“ stated Zemenides.

IDC President Toufic Baaklini explained, “This MOU is a shameful stamp of American approval on the destruction of Christian cultural heritage in Turkey. We will work with the incoming Biden Administration to ensure U.S. policy towards Turkey will be much stronger moving forward.”

Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou, who served on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2004-2012 and lectures at Tufts University Fletcher School, called the agreement “a surreal moment in U.S. foreign policy.”  Prodromou explained, “well-documented and extensive evidence by cultural heritage experts leaves no doubt that the state of Turkey is the single greatest threat to that country’s cultural heritage. The Trump Administration has now put the United States in the position of enabler to Turkey’s weaponization of cultural heritage policy, used for a century as a cudgel to erase the country’s vulnerable religious minorities, including Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian Christians, and Jews. The incoming Biden administration will face one more challenge in trying to restore U.S. leadership in the protection of human rights and religious freedom, as Washington tries to ensure that Turkey does not hide beyond the MOU in order to commit ‘memoricide’ against its Christian and Jewish minority communities.”

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The cultural property agreement with Turkey was negotiated by the State Department under the U.S. law implementing the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.  U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Turkey David Satterfield and Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Ersoy signed the bilateral Memorandum of Understanding.

While the final memorandum text has not been made public, Turkey’s request called for U.S. import restrictions on virtually all art originating in their territory, spanning all periods in history from the prehistoric up to the modern era.

U.S. law requires that four conditions be satisfied before signing an agreement:

  1. The cultural property of the requesting country [and on the designated list] is in jeopardy from pillage.
  2. Turkey has taken measures consistent with the 1970 UNESCO Convention to protect its cultural patrimony.
  3. The application of import restrictions, if applied in concert with similar restrictions implemented, or to be implemented within a reasonable amount of time by those nations individually having a significant import trade in such material, would be of substantial benefit in deterring a serious situation of pillage, and remedies less drastic than import restrictions are unavailable.
  4. The application of import restrictions is consistent with the international community’s interest in the interchange of cultural property.

Opponents of the agreement argued that none of the key criteria had been met.

In testimony submitted on January 21, 2020, to the State Department Cultural Property Advisory Committee which recommended the signing of the agreement, the Association of Art Museum Directors argued, “While all of the facts are important, perhaps the most troubling is Turkey’s failure to take measures to protect its cultural patrimony. Instead, it is taking affirmative steps to eradicate some of the country’s most important heritage—particularly that of its minority cultures and religions—through state-sanctioned destruction of cultural patrimony. Nobody should condone this conduct. But that is exactly what the Committee will do if it concludes that Turkey qualifies for import restrictions and recommends the MOU.”

Joint testimony submitted by the Committee for Cultural Policy and the Global Heritage Alliance opposing the agreement went further, noting, “By encouraging an MOU with Turkey, the State Department is not only ignoring common sense and the balanced cultural policy set by Congress decades before – it is directly harming important U.S. constituencies such as the Armenian, Greek, Cypriot, Syriac, and Kurdish communities founded by minorities who suffered under Turkish persecution in the 20th century. […] A MOU approving Turkey’s cultural heritage policies will strengthen Erdoğan’s nationalist and anti-Semitic program, which already threatens to deprive Jewish and Christian communities of rights to community property and their most precious religious artifacts.”

Following the signing of the agreement, the State Department Bureau of Education and Cultural Heritage will work with Turkey’s Embassy and archaeologists to build a comprehensive “designated list” of items prohibited from import. Similar lists, developed as part of memoranda with other countries, have included virtually all objects, unless they can be proved to U.S. Customs’ satisfaction to have been out of country for more than ten years. Agreements are usually valid for five years, though legislative oversight is generally lax, and memoranda with other countries have been renewed for decades, often with no measurable benefit for the preservation of antiquities.

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