Armenian community leaders in Glendale and Burbank are cheering this week as a congressional bill that calls for an accounting of confiscated Christian churches, monasteries, and other religious properties in Turkey and their eventual return to their former Christian owners has transcended an initial hurdle.
The bill, called the Turkey Christian Churches Accountability Act, passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs last week. Although the bill has several more steps to go, including getting on the schedule to be reviewed by the full House of Representatives, Armenian community leaders are inspired by its progress, tying it to a larger fight for recognition of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-18 at the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
“The issue of the genocide has been muffled. It has been muted,” Armen Hovannisian, president of the Armenian Bar Assn., said by phone this week. “This is a wonderful change, a breathtaking inspiration.”
Although American government officials have individually recognized the genocide, American presidents and Turkish leaders have not. Hovannisian said the bill was a welcome sign as Armenians worldwide will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the genocide next year.
Turkish authorities, though, denounced the bill.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry lashed out last week, condemning the bill in a statement for its “groundless criticism, false information and baseless accusations on the situation of Christian heritage in Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.”
The statement goes on to describe bill proponents as “anti-Turkish circles in the U.S. Congress” and no matter how far it goes, it is “null and void as far as Turkey is concerned.”
It’s not unusual for Congress to pass a bill requesting action from another nation that may be adverse to the initiative, Hovannisian said.
According to the bill, introduced by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), Christian communities have faced many obstacles to regain control over stolen and confiscated properties, some of which have been destroyed or converted into mosques, storage facilities or museums. Although Turkish authorities have worked to return some properties in the past, there is more to be done, the bill states.
In addition to the Armenian Bar Assn., Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian, prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America Western Prelacy headquartered in La Crescenta, Rev. Joseph Matossian, minister to the Armenian Evangelical United of North America based in Glendale, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, primate of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America located in Burbank and the Armenian National Committee of America supported the bill.
“With profound thanks and gratitude we salute this righteous and bold decision by the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” Mardirossian said in a statement Thursday. “With hopeful anticipation we look forward to the day when our sacred properties are returned to their rightful owners and all religious and ethnic minorities can live in peace without threat of persecution.”
Matossian echoed his optimism.
“It’s not a show. Hopefully it will proceed, but it needs to be pursued. Perseverance is important, focusing on the issue is important and marching forward,” he said. “I believe in going all the way. You just don’t start the match or tournament or something just to stop as it gets a little tough.”
Follow Brittany Levine on Twitter: @brittanylevine.