April 1, 2014

Bill Calling for Report on Turkey’s Stolen Churches Introduced

Bill Calling for Report on Turkey’s Stolen Churches Introduced -

 

ANCA Welcomes Launch of Bipartisan Religious Freedom Legislation

WASHINGTON—House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) has been joined by the panel’s Ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), in introducing bipartisan religious freedom legislation (H.R.4347) that would require the Obama Administration to submit annual reports on the status of stolen Christian churches and properties in Turkey and occupied Cyprus, a move welcomed by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).


The St. Tovmas Armenian church near Van. (Photo by Khatchig Mouradian)

“Americans of Armenian heritage—the sons and daughters of the world’s first Christian nation—join with friends of all faiths in welcoming Chairman Royce’s introduction of the Royce-Engel Turkey Christian Churches Accountability Act,” said ANCA Chairman Ken Hachikian.

“The need for strong American leadership in defense of minority rights and religious freedom was dramatically underscored this past week by Turkey’s role in attacks against Kessab, Syria—the last and only vestige of a pre-Genocide era indigenous Armenian town within the territory of the former Ottoman Empire. The timely adoption of this measure will send a strong signal to Ankara that it must stop its anti-Christian conduct and start coming to terms with its moral, material, and legal obligations to Armenians, Syriacs, Cypriots, Pontians, and other victims of Turkey’s still unpunished genocidal crimes.”

In a statement issued upon introduction, Chairman Royce outlined the need for passage of H.R.4347. “This legislation holds Turkey accountable for its international obligations to protect and promote human rights, and it calls attention to Turkish leaders’ broken promises to return church properties to their rightful owners. Over decades, Christian church properties, particularly those belonging to the Armenian, Syriac, and Greek Orthodox communities have been either violently overtaken or illegally confiscated by Turkish authorities under various excuses. These churches under Turkish control have been looted, converted to mosques, storehouses, casinos, vandalized and often irreparably damaged,” stated Chairman Royce. “Vulnerable religious minorities deserve more than just piecemeal returns of their stolen religious properties. It is important that the United States continue to encourage Turkish leaders to uphold their commitments and return all remaining properties without further delay. This bill will make promoting religious freedom and tolerance in Turkey a U.S. diplomatic priority.”

Ranking Democrat Engel concurred, noting, “The Republic of Turkey, and indeed all nations, have a responsibility to protect, restore, and return religious properties which have been unlawfully seized from their communities and rightful owners by state authorities. Armenian, Syriac, and Greek Orthodox communities in Turkey have for many years been seeking the return of their confiscated properties. The claims of these communities must be respected and addressed in a comprehensive and timely manner. This legislation calls on the Republic of Turkey to meet its international obligations, and urges the United States to prioritize the return of unlawfully seized religious properties in order to begin to resolve the legitimate claims of these communities.”

The introduction of the resolution was spotlighted in “The Hill” Newspaper’s “Floor Action” blog, closely monitored by elected officials and Capitol Hill staff.

H.R. 4347 builds on a measure (H.Res.306), spearheaded by Chairman Royce and then House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-Calif.), which was overwhelmingly adopted by the House of Representatives on December 13, 2011. That resolution called upon the government of Turkey to honor its international obligations to return confiscated Christian church properties and to fully respect the rights of Christians to practice their faiths in freedom.

H.R.4347 specifically requires the Secretary of State to “submit to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate a report on the status and return of stolen, confiscated, or otherwise unreturned Christian churches, places of worship, and other properties in or from the Republic of Turkey and in the areas of northern Cyprus occupied by the Turkish military that shall contain the following:

(1) A comprehensive listing of all the Christian churches, places of worship, and other properties, such as monasteries, schools, hospitals, monuments, relics, holy sites, and other religious properties, including movable properties, such as artwork, manuscripts, vestments, vessels, and other artifacts, in or from Turkey and in the territories of the Republic of Cyprus under military occupation by Turkey that are claimed as stolen, confiscated, or otherwise wrongfully removed from the ownership of their rightful Christian church owners.

(2) Description of all engagement over the previous year on this issue by officials of the Department of State with representatives of the Republic of Turkey regarding the return to their rightful owners of all Christian churches, places of worship, and other properties, such as monasteries, schools, hospitals, monuments, relics, holy sites, and other religious properties, including movable properties, such as artwork, manuscripts, vestments, vessels, and other artifacts, both those located within Turkey’s borders and those under control of Turkish military forces in the occupied northern areas of Cyprus.”

The resolution goes on to urge that a summary of the report be included in the annual U.S. State Department Human Rights Report and International Religious Freedom Report.

The full text of H.R.4347 is provided below.

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H.R. 4347 – Turkey Christian Churches Accountability Act

To require the Secretary of State to provide an annual report to Congress regarding United States Government efforts to survey and secure the return, protection, and restoration of stolen, confiscated, or otherwise unreturned Christian properties in the Republic of Turkey and in those areas currently occupied by the Turkish military in northern Cyprus.

Section 1. Short Title.

This Act may be cited as the “Turkey Christian Churches Accountability Act”.

Sec. 2. Findings.

Congress finds the following:

(1) United States diplomatic leadership contributes meaningfully and materially to the protection internationally of religious minorities and their faith-based practices and places of worship.

(2) The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 states that “It shall be the policy of the United States to condemn violations of religious freedom, and to promote, and to assist other governments in the promotion of, the fundamental right to freedom of religion.”

(3) The House of Representatives, when it adopted House Resolution 306 on December 13, 2011, called on the Secretary of State, in all official contacts with Turkish leaders, to urge Turkey to “allow the rightful church and lay owners of Christian church properties, without hindrance or restriction, to organize and administer prayer services, religious education, clerical training, appointments, and succession”, and to “return to their rightful owners all Christian churches and other places of worship, monasteries, schools, hospitals, monuments, relics, holy sites, and other religious properties, including movable properties, such as artwork, manuscripts, vestments, vessels, and other artifacts”.

(4) On September 28, 2010, the House of Representatives adopted House Resolution 1631, calling for the protection of religious sites and artifacts, as well as for general respect for religious freedom in Turkish-occupied areas of northern Cyprus.

(5) Christian churches and communities in the Republic of Turkey and in the occupied areas of Cyprus continue to be prevented from fully practicing their faith and face serious obstacles to reestablishing full legal, administrative, and operational control over stolen, expropriated, confiscated, or otherwise unreturned churches and other religious properties and sites.

(6) In many cases the rightful Christian church authorities, including relevant Holy Sees located outside Turkey and Turkish-occupied territories, are obstructed from safeguarding, repairing, or otherwise caring for their holy sites upon their ancient homelands, because the properties have been destroyed, expropriated, converted into mosques, storage facilities, or museums, or subjected to deliberate neglect.

(7) While the Turkish Government has made efforts in recent years to address these issues and to return some church properties, much more must be done to rectify the situation of Christian communities in these areas, as a vast majority of Christian holy sites continue to be held by the Turkish Government or by third parties.

(8) On April 24, 2013, Catholicos Karekin II and Catholicos Aram I, spiritual leaders of the millions of Christian Armenian faithful in Armenia and the Diaspora, noted that Turkey continued to unjustly “[retain] confiscated church estates and properties, and religious and cultural treasures of the Armenian people”, and called on Turkey “[t]o immediately return the Armenian churches, monasteries, church properties, and spiritual and cultural treasures, to the Armenian people as their rightful owner”.

(9) The boundaries of Turkey encompass significant historic Christian lands, including the biblical lands of Armenia (present-day Anatolia), home to many of early Christianity’s pivotal events and holy sites, such as Mount Ararat, the location cited in the Bible as the landing place of Noah’s Ark.

(10) These ancient territories were for thousands of years home to a large, indigenous Christian population, but, because of years of repressive Turkish Government policies, historic atrocities, and brutal persecution, today Christians constitute less than one percent of Turkey’s population.

(11) As a result of the Turkish Government’s invasion of the northern area of the Republic of Cyprus on July 20, 1974, and the Turkish military’s continued illegal and discriminatory occupation of portions of this sovereign state, the future and very existence of Greek Cypriot, Maronite, and Armenian communities are now in grave jeopardy.

(12) Under the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, freedom of worship has been severely restricted, access to religious sites blocked, religious sites systematically destroyed, and a large number of religious and archaeological objects illegally confiscated or stolen.

(13) The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its 2012 annual report, criticized “the Turkish government’s systematic and egregious limitations on the freedom of religion”, and warned that “[l]ongstanding policies continue to threaten the survivability and viability of minority religious communities in Turkey”.

(14) Christian minorities in Turkey continue to face discrimination, prohibitions on the training and succession of clergy, and violent attacks, which have at times resulted in lenient sentencing, including the reduced sentence for the murderer of the Catholic Church’s head bishop in Turkey, Luigi Padovese, in June 2010, or delayed justice, including the unresolved torture and murder, in April 2007, of three employees of a Protestant Bible publishing house in Malatya, Turkey.

(15) The Government of Turkey, in contravention of its international legal obligations, refuses to recognize the 2,000-year-old Sacred See of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s international status, has confiscated the large majority of the assets and properties of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Greek cultural and educational foundations, maintains that candidates for the position of Ecumenical Patriarch must be Turkish citizens, and continues to refuse to reopen the Theological School at Halki, thus impeding training and succession for the Greek Orthodox clergy in Turkey.

(16) The Government of Turkey, in contravention of its international legal obligations, continues to place substantial restrictions and other limitations upon the Armenian Patriarchate’s right to train and educate clergy and select and install successors without government interference.

(17) Religious freedom is an essential cornerstone of democracy that promotes respect for individual liberty, which contributes to greater stability, and is therefore a priority value for the United States to promote in its engagement with other countries.

Sec. 3. Report Requirement.

(a) IN GENERAL. – Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act and annually thereafter until 2021, the Secretary of State shall submit to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate a report on the status and return of stolen, confiscated, or otherwise unreturned Christian churches, places of worship, and other properties in or from the Republic of Turkey and in the areas of northern Cyprus occupied by the Turkish military that shall contain the following:

(1) A comprehensive listing of all the Christian churches, places of worship, and other properties, such as monasteries, schools, hospitals, monuments, relics, holy sites, and other religious properties, including movable properties, such as artwork, manuscripts, vestments, vessels, and other artifacts, in or from Turkey and in the territories of the Republic of Cyprus under military occupation by Turkey that are claimed as stolen, confiscated, or otherwise wrongfully removed from the ownership of their rightful Christian church owners.

(2) Description of all engagement over the previous year on this issue by officials of the Department of State with representatives of the Republic of Turkey regarding the return to their rightful owners of all Christian churches, places of worship, and other properties, such as monasteries, schools, hospitals, monuments, relics, holy sites, and other religious properties, including movable properties, such as artwork, manuscripts, vestments, vessels, and other artifacts, both those located within Turkey’s borders and those under control of Turkish military forces in the occupied northern areas of Cyprus.

(b) INCLUSION IN ANNUAL COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES AND INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM REPORT. – The information required under subsection (a) shall be summarized in the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and International Religious Freedom Reports.

         
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