The U.S. House of Representatives, in December of 2011, overwhelmingly adopted H.Res.306, a bipartisan religious freedom measure that called for American leadership in securing Turkey's return of Christian religious properties. In 2014, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved H.R. 4347, which formally required the State Department to report annually on Ankara's progress in restoring these holy sites to their rightful owners.
The territory of present-day Turkey, encompassing the biblical lands of Anatolia and Mount Ararat - the famed landing-place of Noah's Ark - is home to many of Christianity's pivotal events and holy sites. It was in the city of Antioch, on the Mediterranean coast, in which followers of Jesus were first called Christians.
Before 1915, the territory of modern-day Turkey was home to large, indigenous, and vibrant Christian communities, comprised of millions of Armenians, Greeks, Pontians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Catholics. The Christian population in Turkey has been decimated through genocide and persecution. In the past century, over 1,500,000 Armenian Christians were murdered. Today, the persecution and dispossession of Christians continues and they account for less than .1% of Turkey’s population.
Christians in Turkey face continued persecution and threats. In the past several years, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has listed Turkey as a serial violator of religious freedom, listing it either on its watch list or tier one violator, along with Iran, Sudan and North Korea.
USCIRF reported “Over the previous five decades, the [Turkish] state has, using convoluted regulations and undemocratic laws to confiscate hundreds of religious minority properties, primarily those belonging to the Greek Orthodox community, as well as Armenian Orthodox, Catholics, and Jews... The state also has closed seminaries, denying these communities the right to train clergy.”
Christians cannot legally train clergy in Turkey and the Ecumenical (Greek Orthodox) and Armenian Patriarchate are prevented from owning and transferring property.
The Halki Theological School, a Greek Orthodox Seminary that was used as an international religious center, and the Armenian Holy Cross Seminary in Istanbul, have been forcibly shut down by Turkey for over three decades despite repeated protests from the United States and Christians from around the world. The closure of the seminaries is severely undermining the survival of both Christian communities, since they have no institution for educating future priests in Turkey, where church leaders are required to be citizens.
Despite a few token public announcements vowing the return of some religious property, the USCIRF reports, “ad hoc announcements have not resulted in systematic changes in constitutional and legal structures that would remedy violations of religious freedom for non-Muslim minorities,” some of which are on the verge of “virtual disappearance.”
In 2009, Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Christian Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes and reported that Turkey's Christians were second class citizens and that he felt "crucified" by a state that wanted to see his church die out.
Although in 2007, the Turkish government finally restored the Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island, one of the most sacred Armenian churches, which had been confiscated and allowed to decay for over 90 years, Turkey turned it into a museum and refused to return it to the Armenian Church. Religious services are forbidden, except for one day a year, devastating the Armenian community that wants to use the church for services.
Several prominent Christian figures have been killed in Turkey in recent years. In June 2010, the head of the Catholic Church in Turkey Italian Bishop Luigi Padovese was brutally murdered and nearly decapitated a day before he was to visit with the Pope, who was to highlight the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Padovese’s murderer received a reduced sentence, after unsubstantiated accusations against the Bishop for alleged provocation were raised by the defendant. Before his murder, Bishop Padovese had been petitioning for the status of the Church of St. Paul in Tarsus, Turkey to be changed from a museum into a functioning place of regular worship. Even though his appeals were echoed personally by the Pope, Turkey refused the request.
The ANCA seeks strong U.S. leadership in pressing the Turkish government to return improperly confiscated or otherwise stolen Christian properties in Turkey (dating back to the Armenian Genocide) and the areas of Cyprus occupied by the Turkish military, to honor its international religious freedom obligations, and to fully respect freedom of faith.