House Foreign Affairs Committee Passes Turkey Christian Churches Accountability Act

H.R. 4347 Requires the U.S. Secretary of State to issue an annual report to Congress on the fate of Christian properties in Turkey

WASHINGTON — The House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) adopted H.R. 4347, the Turkey Christian Churches Accountability Act, in June.  The legislation was approved by voice vote, with amendments.

Introduced by HFAC Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) in March, H.R. 4347 requires that the Secretary of State, on an annual basis, “submit to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate a report on the status and return of stolen, confiscated, or otherwise unreturned Christian churches, places of worship, and other properties in or from the Republic of Turkey and in northern Cyprus,” until the year 2021.

“We commend Chairman Royce and Ranking Member Engel for their strong support of Armenian-American issues and their vigilance in standing up for religious minorities in Turkey,” stated Armenian Assembly of America Executive Director Bryan Ardouny. “It’s not that more should be done. More must be done to protect Armenian, Greek, Assyrian and other Christian minorities, their properties, and their right to practice their religion in their ancestral home,” Ardouny said.

“I have long been concerned that Christian heritage sites in Turkey have been deteriorating and disappearing in the face of hostile government policies,”

Royce said. “Despite optimistic claims by Turkish leaders, a majority of religious properties remain unreturned.  There is even legislation before the Turkish Parliament to convert the landmark Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum to a mosque.  The US must hold Turkish leaders to their promises.  By passing this legislation, the US sends a message to Turkey that it must return church properties to their rightful owners, while providing an objective measure of their progress each year.”

In his opening remarks, Engel recognized Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) and Eastern Prelacy Bishop Anoushavan Tanielian, who were both on hand to witness the committee vote.

In addition to Royce and Engel, Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), David Cicilline (D-RI), Albio Sires (R-NJ) and Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) also spoke in favor of H.R. 4347.

However, the bill was heavily opposed before and during the committee vote. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) issued a letter calling on his colleagues to oppose H.R. 4347. After days of working with committee members to address their concerns, Royce offered an amended version of H.R. 4347 at the beginning of the vote, which includes 15 new findings and a new section that recognizes “some positive decisions last year by the Turkish government.” Connolly proposed an amendment during the vote that would have stripped the bill of virtually all of its findings. “I am fearful,” Connolly said, restating the false adage that “now is not the time” and indicating that “we need Turkey.” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) voiced his support for the Connolly amendment and his strong opposition to H.R. 4347.

In response, Royce emphasized that previous attempts to find a solution, “have not resulted in progress,” and that Turkey has been “haphazard” in returning confiscated religious property. Ranking Member Engel, as well as Cicilline and Lowenthal, also spoke in opposition to the Connolly amendment and voiced their strong support for H.R. 4347.

Smith rebuked those opposing the bill, saying “we should not be fearful” of Turkey, reminding his colleagues that fear “invites impunity.” “If we have the inability to speak out against human rights abuses then shame on us,” Smith said. “Friends don’t let friends commit human rights abuses,” he added. If you mention the Armenian Genocide in Turkey “the Gulag will be at your door,” Smith exclaimed, as he banged his fist on the desk. “The sword of Damocles hangs over churches in Turkey,” Smith said.

Sherman also spoke passionately in support of H.R. 4347, recalling that after the Turkish government threatened to curtail its trade relations with France for recognizing the Armenian Genocide, trade between the two countries increased three-fold.

The Connolly amendment was defeated in a voice vote.

Following the Connolly amendment, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Rep. George Holding (R-NC) offered amendments to H.R. 4347 that were adopted by voice vote. These amendments added language further diluting the spirit of the bill while simultaneously affording greater acclaim to the Turkish government for half-measures taken after a century of abuses.

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