U.S. Ambassador calls Turkey’s return of churches a “very important priority”

“Advocating full respect for the rights of Turkey’s ethnic and religious communities, including restoring ownership of religious property, will be a very important priority for me and my staff,” U.S. Ambassador to Turkey John Bass explained to Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) in response to a series of questions posed by the Illinois legislator in the days leading up to the Ambassador’s confirmation last week by the U.S. Senate, reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).

Senator Kirk’s inquiries to Ambassador Bass related primarily to U.S. policy regarding Armenian Genocide reaffirmation and Turkey’s return of confiscated Armenian, Greek and Assyrian religious properties.  Ambassador Bass, complying with instructions given to him by the White House, avoided any direct mention of the Armenian Genocide, noting that “the specific terminology the Administration uses to refer to this tragedy is a policy determination made by the President.”  While acknowledging, within the bounds of Administration policy, the historical fact that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, he conspicuouslydodged Senator Kirk’s simple factual question regarding the actual party responsible for perpetrating these murders.  Consistent with recent State Department messaging, Ambassador Bass placed the onus on Ankara to come to terms with its past, stating: “If confirmed as Ambassador, it would be my duty to urge Turkey to achieve a full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts of what occurred in 1915.”

Noting that the Turkish “government seized thousands of properties belonging to Christian and Jewish religious foundations between 1936 and 2011,” Ambassador Bass listed several specific actions he would take to help secure their return, including “working with both the national government and local governments to replicate the success of projects like the restoration of the St. Giragos Armenian church in Diyarbakir, which was restored and reopened as a church in 2011.”  The Turkish government has attempted to secure international praise for the reconstruction of several Christian churches, including the Holy Cross Church on Akhtamar Island, which has been turned into a state-run, secular museum and, until recently, was not even properly identified as Armenian.  St. Giragos is the only Armenian Church renovated in conjunction with local authorities and returned to the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul as a functioning place of worship.

“We would like to thank Senator Kirk for so ably and effectively exercising the Senate’s advise and consent powers and, more broadly, for ensuring meaningful Congressional engagement and oversight of an increasingly complex and contentious U.S.-Turkey relationship,” said ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian.  “While disappointed that the Administration, on the eve of the Armenian Genocide centennial, chose not to send Ambassador Bass before the U.S. Senate with a clear and uncompromising mandate to tell the truth, we do welcome his expression of American solidarity with the Armenian people, and also note that his responses bring an added clarity to the evident, but too often unarticulated, fact that President Obama bears responsibility for determining the specific terminology the U.S. government uses to refer to the Armenian Genocide.”

Asked about whether the State Department is following the ongoing U.S. lawsuits calling for compensation from insurance companies and banks related to genocide-era assets, Ambassador Bass responded that they “continue to follow developments closely,” and noted that “we recognize current and potential future cases are more than just legal claims for the heirs of victims and survivors; they represent a deep and passionate search for resolution of one of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century.”

Sen. Kirk’s inquiries were follow ups to written questions submitted by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA).

The Senate leadership delayed the vote on the Ambassador nominee until last week, when he was approved by a vote of 98 to 0.

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