By Julian Pecquet
Legislation requiring the State Department to report on the status of “stolen, confiscated or otherwise unreturned”, churches and other Christian properties in Turkey and northern Cyprus sailed through the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a voice vote June 26.
Turkey wasted no time in denouncing what it called the bill’s “groundless criticism, false information and baseless accusations” and accused lawmakers of caving to ethnic lobbies.
“Attempts by anti-Turkish circles in the U.S Congress, driven by domestic political consideration, to push such unconstructive and baseless initiatives are unacceptable,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried on the website of the Turkish Embassy in Washington.
The harsh statement raises concerns that the legislation could complicate relations with Turkey at a time when the United States is relying on its NATO ally to defuse the crisis in Syria and contain the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
“Apart from being null and void as far as Turkey is concerned, such initiatives are also incongruous with the existing spirit of partnership and alliance that we enjoy with the United States, with whom we aim to be in even closer cooperation and solidarity, especially in confronting the regional and global challenges we are faced with,” the statement reads. “Those within the US Congress who lead such irresponsible acts and their supporters damage not only the Turkey-US bilateral relationship but also their own country’s interests. It is our strong expectation from the US Administration on this irresponsible act which runs counter to our bonds of alliance. Similarly, we expect from all those who value the Turkish-IS relationship to not remain silent.”
The legislation, sponsored by committee Chairman Ed Royce, (R-CA), and ranking member Elliot Engel (D-NY), would require the State Department to inform Congress of its efforts to persuade Turkey to return Christian sites and objects to their “rightful owners.”
It also requires that information to be made a part of annual reports to Congress on human rights practices and international religious freedom.
“I have long been concerned that Christian heritage sites in Turkey have been deteriorating and disappearing in the face of hostile government policies,” Royce said in a statement after the mark-up. “Despite optimistic claims by Turkish leaders, a majority of religious properties remain unreturned. There is even legislation before the Turkish Parliament to convert the landmark Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum to a mosque. The U.S must hold Turkish leaders to their promises. By passing this legislation, the U.S sends a message to Turkey that it must return church properties to their rightful owners, while providing an objective measure of their progress each year.”
The legislation has the strong support of the Armenian-American diaspora, which is centered around greater Los Angeles and the greater New York metro area. Armenian church leaders from Washington and New York attended the June 26 mark up and the Armenian Bar Association wrote to all 45 members of the committee urging them to vote “yes”.
“Ottoman Turkey’s genocide of the Armenians took a huge and horrific human toll. We know that and you know that. Less known is the fact that there were a few lucky survivors of the Genocide which remain upright today on the land where so many Armenians were felled,” the letter states. “The surviving Armenian and Christian churches are witness to an ancient native civilization, lost for now, but deserving of the dual destinies of recovery and return.”
Two lawmakers — Reps. Gerald Connolly (D-VA), and Greg Meeks (D-NY)—raised concerns with legislation singling out Turkey at a delicate time. Connolly said the effort would “backfire” and predicted anti-American blowback at the ballot box.
“I am fearful that in out haste to make a statement that provides understandable comfort to our constituents, we are going to rupture one of the most important bilateral relationships we have right now,” said Connolly, who co-chairs the Congressional Caucaus on US-Turkish relations and Turkish Americans.
Connolly instead offered a non-binding sense of Congress that Turkey should “continue to make progress” in returning Christian properties. His proposal went nowhere.
Royce said he was “disappointed” not to get unanimous support after rewriting the bill to highlight recent encouraging steps by Turkey, including the creation of a legal process for considering claims, reports that more than 300 properties were returned as of January 2014 and the decision to allow a liturgical celebration at the historic Sumela Monastery in 2010 for the first time since 1922. Royce pointed out that the Barack Obama administration has raised similar concerns at the highest levels and questioned how much blowback there would really be a congressional report.