House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) has been joined by the panel’s Ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-NY), 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).
“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.”
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-CA), 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.