We must commend Acting Patriarch Aram Ateshian and the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul for making the bold move of suing the Turkish government for the return of historically significant Armenian properties.
Turkish officials normally view such legal actions with hostility and exert great pressure on judges to reject property claims filed by minorities, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to win similar lawsuits. Nevertheless, this is a necessary first step in order to be able to appeal the Turkish court’s expected negative ruling to the European Court of Human Rights, where a plaintiff has a much better chance of a fair hearing.
The lawsuit filed by the Patriarchate on March 14 seeks the return of Armenian properties belonging to Sanasarian College in Garin (Erzeroum), which were confiscated by the Turkish authorities following the genocide of 1915. The college’s extensive properties, now worth tens of millions of dollars, include nine plots of land in Garin, a garden house and vast farmland in the village of Aghveren, two plots in the village of Gez, and a large commercial property (khan) in the center of Constantinople (Istanbul).
Sanasarian College was founded in 1881 by a major endowment from Mgrdich Sanasarian, a wealthy businessman from Georgia who had settled in St. Petersburg, Russia. The generous benefactor donated additional properties to the college in the late 1800’s.
Prior to 1915, Sanasarian College played a prominent role as a modernizing force during the Armenian national awakening. It was a European-style liberal arts school with the specific purpose of preparing teachers and professionals in various fields to assist the rapid development of Western Armenia’s economy. During its brief existence, the college produced hundreds of graduates, including many who rose to prominent positions. Armen Garo, the Armenian Republic’s first ambassador to the United States in 1918, was an alumnus of Sanasarian College.
Garin was an important base of operations for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and its leaders who had taken residence there before 1915. One of the ARF’s founders, Rostom, was appointed as superintendent of Garin’s school system, which included Sanasarian College.
Some meetings of the momentous ARF 8th World Congress in 1914 were held in Sanasarian College buildings. The Congress was interrupted by the start of World War I. The Young Turk government dispatched to Garin a high-level delegation headed by Behaeddin Shakir, one of the masterminds of the Armenian Genocide, to pressure the ARF into collaborating with the government’s wartime efforts. The ARF Congress turned down the request. The college closed down in early 1915 and its entire faculty and many of its students were killed during the genocide. Shakir was assassinated by Armenian avengers in 1922 in Berlin.
Ironically, a few years later, Garin was converted from a hotbed of Armenian activism to a center of Turkish nationalism with the convening of the historic Erzeroum Congress by Kemal Ataturk in 1919. Currently, the Sanasarian College complex is a Turkish museum.
Commenting on the lawsuit, Ali Elbeyoglu, the Armenian Patriarchate’s lawyer, told Hurriyet newspaper: “The Sanasarian Foundation was granted to the Patriarchate by philanthropist Mgrdich Sanasarian in the 1800’s. The administration and management of the Sanasarian Foundation legally belongs to the Patriarchate… We are not going to content ourselves with the mere return of historical buildings. We are also going to demand compensation from the government’s General Directorate of Foundations for all material losses incurred by the Patriarchate since 1936.”
Earlier this year, the Armenian Patriarchate filed a separate lawsuit against the directorate general of foundations seeking the return of the Sanasarian Shopping Center (khan) in Istanbul. Even though the court imposed a temporary injunction, freezing all transactions involving the building’s disposition, the directorate general of foundations declared that it would not abide by the court’s order. Elbeyoglu reacted by declaring: “This runs counter to all international legal [norms] as well as the Treaty of Lausanne. The Patriarchate is still in possession of the title deed,” Hurriyet reported.
In the past, when I criticized the Patriarchate for making public statements against Armenian national interests, I was accused of not fully appreciating the special circumstances under which Armenians live in Turkey, and was told to show more sensitivity to the fact that they are basically hostages of the Turkish government. Since this article commends the Patriarchate’s bold legal action, I am concerned that my words of praise might make some Armenians in Turkey just as uncomfortable. I am simply trying to be fair and even-handed, offering criticism or praise, as the occasion merits.