U.S. Ambassador Calls Turkey’s Return of Churches a ‘Very Important Priority’

In Response to Sen. Kirk’s Inquiries, Amb. Bass Falls Short of Genocide Affirmation; Clarifies U.S. Commitment to Restoring Ownership of Religious Property

WASHINGTON—”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-Ill.) in response to a series of questions posed by the Illinois legislator in the days leading up to Bass’s confirmation last week by the U.S. Senate, reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).

Ambassador Bass
Ambassador Bass

Kirk’s inquiries to Bass related primarily to U.S. policy regarding Armenian Genocide reaffirmation and Turkey’s return of confiscated Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian religious properties. 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 conspicuously dodged Kirk’s simple factual question regarding the actual party responsible for perpetrating these murders. Consistent with recent State Department messaging, 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.”

Sen. Kirk
Sen. Kirk

Noting that the Turkish “government seized thousands of properties belonging to Christian and Jewish religious foundations between 1936 and 2011,” 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 advice 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, 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.”

Kirk’s inquiries were follow-ups to written questions submitted by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

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

Ambassador Bass’s complete responses to Senator Kirk’s inquiries are provided below.

***

Questions Submitted to Ambassador–designate John Bass by Senator Mark Kirk 

Question 1:

During your testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 15, 2014, you stated: “The U.S. government acknowledges as historical fact and mourns that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.”

a) Can you clarify and expand on your statement to clearly indicate the party or parties responsible for perpetrating the murder of 1.5 million Armenians? 

The U.S. government recognizes and deplores the mass killings and deportations that occurred in 1915 during the final days of the Ottoman Empire. Accounts of these tragic events by U.S. diplomats and officials, including the Honorable Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-16, serve as important historical records of this time from various perspectives. I fully respect the determination of the Armenian-American community and the Armenian people to see their pain and loss acknowledged. The individual stories of the tragedy are truly horrifying. 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.

b) Would you agree with the European Union and 11 of our NATO allies, all of which have officially designated these atrocities as the Armenian Genocide?

In concert with our European partners, the U.S. government acknowledges and mourns as historical fact that 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. While the specific terminology the administration uses to refer to this tragedy is a policy determination made by the president, these events were without question one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. That is why every April 24th the president honors the victims and expresses American solidarity with the Armenian people on Remembrance Day. If confirmed, I would have the duty of faithfully representing the policies of the president of the United States. I also would do everything I could to advance concretely President Obama’s call for “a full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts,” including supporting publicly the courageous steps taken by Armenian and Turkish individuals to engage in honest dialogue.

c) As Ambassador, would you support the rights of the heirs of those killed during the Armenian Genocide to seek compensation from the Republic of Turkey?

We are familiar with the litigation in California courts, which involves property claims by heirs of the Armenian victims of the tragic events in 1915. Although the U.S. government is not a party to the litigation, we continue to follow developments closely. California’s courts have dismissed several of the cases on procedural grounds, but some litigation remains pending.

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. These cases are also a stark reminder of the importance of ongoing U.S. government efforts to encourage the Turkish and Armenian people and governments to heal the wounds of the past. If confirmed, I would seek to intensify support for the ongoing reconciliation efforts in order to support these nations in moving toward a future relationship grounded in security and prosperity.

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Question 2:

During your testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 15, 2014, you stated: “If confirmed, I will encourage the Turkish government to follow through on the return of religious minority properties and to take additional steps to promote religious freedom, such as allowing more religious communities to own property, register their places of worship, and train clergy.”

a) Could you expand and clarify on what specific actions you plan to undertake? Will you raise this issue at the highest levels of the Turkish government? 

If confirmed, I will continue our engagement at all levels of the Turkish government regarding the importance of religious freedom and will encourage legal reforms aimed at lifting restrictions on religious groups, property restitution, and specific cases of religious discrimination. Beyond my personal engagement, I will ensure officials from our embassy and consulates also continue to regularly meet with religious minority leaders in Turkey to hear their views.

As documented in the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report on Turkey, the government seized thousands of properties belonging to Christian and Jewish religious foundations between 1936 and 2011. To this end, if confirmed, I will strongly support efforts to reopen Halki Seminary on terms acceptable to the Ecumenical Patriarch. I will also urge the Turkish government to follow through on the return of religious minority properties by 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. I will also appeal to officials to take additional measures, such as allowing more religious communities to register their places of worship and train religious leaders.

b) Are you satisfied with the actions the State Department and our Embassy in Ankara has taken to date to convince Turkey to restore Christian religious property to its rightful owners?

The State Department and Embassy Ankara take very seriously the issue of religious freedom for all in Turkey. U.S. officials–including President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary Kerry as well as embassy officers at all levels–regularly raise the topic of religious freedom with their Turkish counterparts. If confirmed, I will continue to press Turkish officials for the most open-minded review possible of applications to return seized religious properties, and will urge Turkey to legally recognize the patriarchates, who continue to be constrained in exercising property rights by a lack of legal personality. 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.

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6 Comments

  1. I The Armenian genocide will be described as part of a political determination. Whatever artful term is used hundreds of thousands of children will never know their grand parents because of the planned evil of the Turkish government. This is the truth plain and simple.

    • Many Armenian children have suffered second hand from the stories of the horrific treatment of their grandparents by the Turks it is in our minds and hearts and will never leave us

    • The reason Mr.Bass Falls Short of Genocide Affirmation, because his boss politically is not comfortable with creation of word of Raphael Lemkin!He could lose his job, like honorable John Evans, before reaching the land of Midnight Express!

  2. Although my ancestors were not subjected in Genocide by Turks, it is a very sensitive issue to me. I had hoped that President Obama as promisedon his campaigne trail to all Armenian Americans that upon his election, his aministration will recognize Armenian Genocide by the ” Young Turks” meaning Gamal. Essmat and Anvar Pashas and their henchmen including the supporting colonial powers. Instead, upon facing the Armenian community dismay and discouragement the President forgetting his promise call the Genocide an “atrocity”. I am an Democratic supporter but discouraged of the administration shift towards the Turks even after the collaps of Soviet Union. I understand US and Israel’s strategic alliance in the regional policies with respect to last 30 years developments in middle Eastern countries was tumultuous and difficult even as we see it today ineffective and un successful. Israeli’s as genocide victims themselves used to recognize Armenians as victims as well. It was unfortunate, following their master, benefactor or guarantor of their security in the region followed suit perhaps to dramatize that fact that they were the only victims of genocide in modern human history. To add insult to injury after discovery of hugege oil reserves in Azarbiejan the modern turkish governments became a darling of our administration. Guys like Erdogan need our military support,
    billions of annual dollars assistance but did not permit we use their bases the first Iraq war (George Bush the elder) to protect the Kurds ( Their enemy)against Saddam’s genocide and now they are hiding when we need them to irradicate insurgency. I have bad news for Mr. Obama. Our darling turned into a prostitute. She sleeps with the enemy.

  3. Disappointingly and as expected, John Bass was confirmed by the a senate vote of 98-0. Sadly no senator voted no to expose the President’s and the administration’s duplicity and dishonesty and flagrant play with words, even though Bass’s responses were incomplete, misleading and did not clearly and precisely answer the questions posed by the senators.
    The most striking statement in Ambassador Bass’s response is:
    “While the specific terminology the administration uses to refer to this tragedy is a policy determination made by the President”.
    As I had previously commented, ambassadorial nominations and the process to confirm by the senate is a charade. Ambassadors are nothing but puppets that merely follow the instructions of the President and Secretary of State. Neither one has the courage, fortitude and moral integrity to do what is right.
    A sad reality and deeply disappointing.
    Vart Adjemian

  4. Supposing,jusgt supposing all Azrmenian church properties(real estate) plus mainLY THE CHURCHES IN ANADOLOU(read Western Armenia)were returned .Who would form the congregation there,to attend church services,(badaraks) mass…
    Is the good Ambassador ¨unaware¨ of the fact´that there are no Christian Armenians around these. or he does not follow history…
    is incongnizent of the Armenian genocide,which almost no Armenians left there…
    I do believe he either fails to understand or else he pretends not to understand and accept the fact that MURDER in over a million people was committed there in ANADOLOU….
    Armenians will soon commemorate the 100th Anniversary of this horrendous First Genocide of its kind5 beginning of lost century…
    Armenians demand JUSTICE to be implementged and Genocide stste officially condemned and made to make reparations, restitution en gross, not just a few churches or what remains of them(moistly erased).it is a mockery this act fo Turkish style , yavash yavash(poco a poco, little by little giveing crumbs away to a PROUD PEOPLE, WE ARE.!!!!No more Mr, Turk.We shall not rest untill you accept officially the Genocide and make reparations.
    We also know you will soon -more than giving away a few such churches-come to Yerevan ,kneel down at the Genocide Monument(like Jemal Pasha´s grandson did) but it is another question for great Turkey to cough up…but we know how that can be arranged.Late on this part if someone wishes to know…
    best hasgcoghin

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