Ricciardone Revises Response to Senate Inquiry on Number of Churches in Turkey


US Amb. to Turkey Francis Ricciardone

WASHINGTON — US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, responding to a wave of grassroots outrage and growing Congressional concern, backed away fromhis most obvious and offensive misrepresentations about Turkey’s destruction of Christian churches, but sparked renewed controversy by artificially inflating the number of currently operating Christian houses of worship, and again using strained euphemisms to help Ankara escape responsibility for its crimes, reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).

Following broad-based concerns expressed by Armenian-American community and religious leaders, Ricciardone amended his earlier response to Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Robert Menendez (D-NJ), in which he had argued, without any basis in fact, that a majority of Christian churches operating in the territory of present-day Turkey prior to 1915 were still functioning today.

In a correction obtained by the ANCA on August 22, Ricciardone took the “opportunity to clarify the record,” suggesting that of the 2,000 churches there before 1915, they are not all still functioning. He said, “The corrected text should read as follows: Most of the Christian churches functioning prior to 1915 are no longer operating as churches. Christian community contacts in Turkey report that a total of 200-250 churches that date to 1915 and before offer Christian worship services at least once a year. Many churches do not offer services every week due to insufficient clergy or local Christian populations. Some churches of significance operate as museums, others have been converted into mosques or put to other uses. Still others have fallen into disrepair or may have been totally destroyed.”

“It took Ambassador Ricciardone, with the help of his many State Department colleagues, over a week to submit in writing a patently false misrepresentation about the destruction of Christian churches in Turkey, and another 10 days and a full wave of Senate and citizen pressure for him to finally take half a step back from the most offensive and obviously incorrect aspects of his response,” said ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian.

“He just keeps digging himself into a deeper hole as an apologist for Ankara. His use of false figures and euphemisms to try to twist his way out of his misrepresentation — while somehow still trying to stick to Turkey’s genocide denial narrative — clearly confirms that Ambassador Ricciardone is not the right representative of US values and interests in Turkey.”

Last week, in a strongly-worded letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ANCA Chairman Ken Hachikian demanded a retraction, correction and apology for Ambassador Ricciardone’s statement covering-up Ottoman and Republican Turkey’s systematic destruction of thousands of Christian churches.

“We have been troubled by his eagerness to embrace the government of Turkey’s false and hateful genocide denial narrative, at lengths beyond even the Administration’s longstanding and shameful complicity in Turkey’s denials of the Armenian Genocide,” stated Hachikian in his August 15 letter. “His verbal and written responses to questions during his Senate confirmation process, regarding the Armenian Genocide and other issues, ranged from evasive to deeply offensive.”

Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan and Archbishop Moushegh Mardirossian, prelates of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America Eastern and Western United States, respectively, and Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Eastern United States, each issued powerfully-worded spiritual messages in response to the ambassador’s statement.

In an August 15 statement, Choloyan stressed that the ambassador’s assertion was “so blatantly false that it cannot remain unchallenged.” Setting the record straight, he noted that: “The facts are quite clear. From the massacres of Armenians in 1895-96 and the Armenian Genocide in 1915, to the decades following the establishment of the Turkish republic, Christian houses of worship were systematically destroyed or confiscated. My own church’s hierarchal see, the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, was a victim of this process, and today is exiled in Lebanon. The archives of the Catholicosate contain hundreds of original deeds and other documentation of churches and church owned property that was confiscated.”

Mardirossian concurred, stating, “The presence of an Ambassador in Ankara who is unaware of or uninterested in the truth and the consequences of the Ottoman and Republican Turkish government’s genocide of Armenians, Assyrians, Syriacs, Greeks and other Christians materially undermines US interests, compromises American values and weakens international efforts to defend religious freedom for peoples of all faiths. Sadly, but unmistakably, with this hateful and hurtful statement, Ambassador Ricciardone has demonstrated that he is not the right candidate to effectively and responsibly represent the United States in Turkey.”

On August 19, Barsamian noted that Ricciardone’s response had “deeply offended Armenian- Americans,” explaining that “the loss of these many hundreds of churches, their neglect and outright destruction, and the conversion of many of our sanctuaries into mosques, is a matter of intense pain to Armenians: an ongoing reminder of the loss of life and the destruction that we suffered as a result of the 1915 Genocide… In all charity, perhaps the Ambassador is simply unaware of certain facts. But mastery of the history of a country, its dark as well as bright chapters, is essential to serving the United States effectively and diplomatically in this important and complex region.” (See the full text of his statement on this page.)

According to Armenian Church experts, of the more than 2,000 churches serving the Armenian community prior to 1915, less than 40 are functioning as churches today. Reservations about the ambassador’s readiness to placate his foreign hosts willingness to accept the Turkish government’s talking points on religious tolerance at face value echo concerns expressed last fall by then Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), who, during the last session of Congress, placed a hold on Ricciardone’s nomination to serve as US ambassador to Turkey. In an August 16, 2010, letter to Clinton, Brownback voiced disapproval of Ricciardone’s tenure as US ambassador to Egypt, noting, among other things, that “he quickly adopted the positions and arguments of his Egyptian diplomatic counterparts.”

In the wake of Brownback’s hold, President Barack Obama circumvented Senate objections by issuing a “recess appointment” of Ricciardone. The Senate must approve his nomination in the upcoming months, if Ricciardone is to continue to serve in Turkey for more than one year, of the usual three-year ambassadorial term. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will likely take up his nomination upon their return from the August Congressional recess.