By Peter Kechichian
This week, Turkey’s 99-year campaign of Armenian Genocide denial and other significant Armenian American issues were raised at a special subcommittee hearing by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
The hearing, held on Tuesday, July 15th, at the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, was entitled “The Future of Turkish Democracy,” under the direction of Subcommittee Chairman Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) was also present to deliver introductory remarks.
Chairman Royce repeatedly criticized the increased consolidation of power by the Erdogan government as well as further restrictions on human rights in Turkey. Royce stated that “I am very concerned by recent events that indicate a shift by Prime Minister Erdogan away from democratic ideals and reverting to more authoritarian rule,” further adding that Erdogan has “consistently chosen to use strong-arm tactics against opponents.”
The committee heard testimony from several experts on Turkey. These included Mr. Nate Schenkkan, Program Officer at Freedom House; Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou, Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at Tufts University; Dr. Soner Cagaptay, Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Dr. Kilic Kanat, Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research; and Hakan Tasci, Executive Director, Tuskon-US.
Chairman Royce began the hearing by reiterating his support for HR 4347, the Turkey Christian Churches Accountability Act, which requires the U.S. State Department to issue an annual report on the fate of Christian properties in Turkey and the status of their return to their rightful owners. HR 4347 was overwhelmingly adopted by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs late last month.
Turkey’s state-sponsored campaign to deny the Armenian Genocide was also referenced several times during the hearing. Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ) stated that Turkey appeared to be “very sensitive” about discussion of the Armenian Genocide in the U.S. He also referred to some Turkish officials as “thugs” and referenced Turkish pressure on Members of Congress. “When you vote here, you feel like you’re voting with a Turkish sword over your head,” Sires said.
Turkey Caucus Co-Chair Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who last month vigorously opposed the passage of HR 4347, also indirectly referenced the Armenian Genocide. He stated “Turkey has to come to acknowledgment with some of its past… But so do others. And we need to deal with the Turkey of here and now. Not of the Turkey of a hundred years ago or two hundred years ago or 500 years ago for that matter,” Connolly said. “Some of us are still hung up on Constantinople,” he said, as he attempted to humorously portray the death of 1.5 million men, women, and children.
Only two of the five witnesses at the subcommittee hearing made reference to issues of concern to the Armenian American community. Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou spoke in depth about Christian minorities in Turkey, the persecution they continue to face, and the destruction of Anatolia’s Christian heritage. She not only mentioned the Armenian Genocide in her prepared remarks but also strongly criticized the treatment of Christian Armenians in Turkey, as well as the status of Armenian and Greek holy sites in Turkey and Cyprus.
Dr. Prodromou referred to the status of religious minority rights in Turkey as revealing a “sobering picture of no substantive change,” further adding that “if one uses religious freedom for Turkey’s minority communities as a metric for the overall robustness and quality of democracy in Turkey, there is cause for grave concern.” She also implored the U.S. to hold Turkey to “international standards and to the expectations of a U.S. partner and NATO ally.”
In his prepared statement, Dr. Soner Cagaptay made reference to the re-opening of the Armenian Akhtamar Church in Eastern Turkey as an example of “improvements in terms of religious freedoms.” However, he failed to mention that the very same church officially functions as a museum and only allows a liturgical service once a year.
The subcommittee hearing dealt with various issues relating to the status of democracy in Turkey. Some other areas covered include restrictions on religion, internet censorship, and the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey.