By Harut Sassounian
The California Courier
Armenians worldwide applauded the Cilician Catholicosate for filing a lawsuit in the Turkish Constitutional Court on April 27, demanding the return of its historic seat in Sis, Kozan district of Turkey’s Adana province. The Cilician See’s former headquarters, established in 1293, was confiscated by the Turkish government in 1921, at the culmination of the Armenian Genocide.
Catholicos Aram I announced that should the Turkish court reject the lawsuit, the Catholicosate intends to appeal the ruling to the European Court of Human Rights, which requires that all domestic legal remedies are exhausted before it considers appeals on cases filed against Council of Europe members states. Skeptics of Turkish acceptance of European Court decisions should know that the Republic of Turkey has complied with all rulings since its acceptance of the Court’s jurisdiction in 1990.
The Catholicosate’s lawsuit is a landmark case for several reasons:
— It seeks to restore partial justice for the enormous human, material, and territorial losses suffered by Armenians during the Genocide.
— It shifts “Hai Tad [Armenian Cause] efforts beyond the recognition of the Armenian Genocide into the legal sphere,” as stated by Catholicos Aram I.
— It could set a precedent for similar legal claims, as His Holiness informed The New York Times last month: “After 100 years, I thought it was high time that we put the emphasis on reparation…. This is the first legal step. This will be followed by our claim to return all the churches, the monasteries, the church-related properties and, finally, the individual properties.”
Despite the noble objectives pursued by the Catholicosate’s lawsuit, a controversy surfaced in the Armenian community last week, when several websites and newspapers reported that the Catholicosate of Cilicia had demanded that the Turkish government “either return the property of the Catholicosate of Sis or pay a compensation of 100 million Turkish Liras ($37 million).” Garo Armenian, a prominent Armenian community leader, wrote a cautionary article titled, “Our Sacred Sites are not Personal Possessions.” He stressed that “the Catholicosate’s lawsuit raises a series of important questions which must be collectively considered forthwith with prudent diligence in order to prevent any undesirable precedents.” He also urged the Catholicosate to clarify this issue if the news reports have not accurately reflected the content of the lawsuit.
I contacted last week the Catholicosate’s representatives seeking such a clarification. I was assured in an e-mail by Father Housig Mardirossian, Assistant to His Holiness Aram I, that “The lawsuit of the Catholicosate has one clear objective: The return of the Catholicosate of Cilicia.”
In response to my request for a copy of the lawsuit, Payam Akhavan, a prominent international lawyer and lead counsel for the Catholicosate, stated that “it is not possible or advisable at this stage to share the full application while it is still pending before the Turkish Constitutional Court.”
On questions regarding monetary compensation, attorney Akhavan provided the following explanation: “The fundamental claim before the Turkish Constitutional Court is that Turkey should return the Monastery and Cathedral of St. Sofia, both because of the Catholicosate’s property rights, as well as its religious significance for Armenians. The claim is not for compensation, given that this is not merely private property, but rather, property of religious and historical significance. However, I have been advised by our Turkish lawyer that under Turkish laws and procedures it is necessary, with respect to the property rights claim (and not the religious rights claim) to reserve the Catholicosate’s alternate right to seek compensation by providing a provisional amount…. But I want to emphasize that the claim is not for compensation; it is for the return of the property, to be used for religious worship and related cultural purposes.”
I contacted an independent lawyer in Istanbul who confirmed that Turkish law indeed required that a specific value be stated for a property under litigation.
Now that the financial issue is clarified, there are other important matters facing the Catholicosate and Armenians in general. Some of these questions might be a little premature, but Armenians may want to reflect upon them in order to anticipate the consequences of any eventual decisions by Turkish or European courts:
1. What would the Catholicosate do should the Turkish court or government allow the restoration of the Sis church and its use for religious worship without returning ownership of the property to the Catholicosate? Moreover, what if the Turkish government also offered monetary compensation for the repair of the church headquarters while retaining the property rights?
2. In case the Turkish Court or the European Court of Human Rights decided to return the Sis church property, would the Catholicosate relocate to its historic headquarters or continue to remain in exile in Antelias, Lebanon?
In view of the Turkish government’s recent overtures to the heads of Assyrian and Syriac churches to return to their historic headquarters in Turkey from temporary exile in Syria, Turkey’s leaders may use the Armenian lawsuit as a cover vis-à-vis their own hardliners, and make a similar offer to the Catholicosate of Cilicia.
President Erdogan may make such a gesture for three reasons:
1. To preempt a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in favor of the Catholicosate, and avoid setting a legal precedent for future Armenian lawsuits;
2. To score a public relations victory in international circles, particularly after his party’s loss of parliamentary majority in last Sunday’s elections;
3. To reap the economic benefits of foreign tourists and Armenian visitors to the historic headquarters of the Cilician Catholicosate at Sis.