U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Calls Return of Churches An ‘Important Priority’
In Response to Senator Kirk’s Inquiries, Ambassador 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-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 conspicuously dodged 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.
Amb. Bass’ complete responses to Sen. Kirk’s inquiries are provided below.
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Questions Submitted to Ambassador Designate John Bass by Senator Mark Kirk
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 1913-1916, 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.
Questions for the Record The Honorable John Bass, U.S. Ambassador-Designate to the Republic of Turkey
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.