Amb. Ricciardone Finally Admits Most Churches not Operating in Turkey

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By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
Aug. 25, 2011

After facing harsh criticism for covering up Turkey’s desecration and destruction of thousands of Christian churches, Amb. Francis Ricciardone, Pres. Obama’s appointee as Ambassador to Turkey, reversed himself last week, acknowledging that most churches functioning in Turkey prior to 1915 are no longer operating today.

Amb. Ricciardone disavowed the Turkish misinformation he had recently spewed, after realizing that his nomination was about to be rejected by Senators for the second time in 12 months.

A year ago, when Pres. Obama nominated Ricciardone as Ambassador to Turkey, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) placed a hold on his nomination, accusing him of being too cozy with Pres. Mubarak’s despotic regime during his posting in Egypt. Obama then circumvented the Senate’s confirmation process and appointed him as Ambassador to Turkey, while Congress was in recess. Should the Senate not confirm him by the year’s end, his assignment would be cut short and he would be forced to return to Washington.

During his August 2 appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Amb. Ricciardone repeatedly made excuses for the Turkish government’s domestic and foreign policies, acting as the spokesman of yet another autocratic regime.

To make matters worse, in response to a written question from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Amb. Ricciardone falsely claimed that most Christian churches existing in Turkey before 1915 are still functioning today!

The Ambassador’s gaffe triggered a massive outcry from the Armenian-American community. Church leaders wrote irate letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sharply criticizing Amb. Ricciardone’s erroneous assertion. The Armenian National Committee of America demanded that he issue a retraction, correction, and apology for his false statement. In my last week’s column, I called on the Senators to reject his nomination.

Fearing that his confirmation is in serious jeopardy, Amb. Ricciardone issued a revised statement last week, partially reversing his earlier misrepresentation.

Here is the question that Sen. Menendez had asked: "To the best of your knowledge, approximately how many of the more than 2,000 Christian churches functioning prior to 1915 on the territory of present-day Turkey are still operating today as churches?"

Amb. Ricciardone’s initial answer: "Most of the Christian churches functioning prior to 1915 are still operating as churches. Some churches of significance operate as museums. The remaining have fallen into disrepair or were converted to mosques for lack of use."

Amb. Ricciardone’s revised answer: "With your permission, I would appreciate the opportunity to clarify the record. 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."

While Amb. Ricciardone’s revised answer is somewhat more accurate, it is still far from representing the full truth. Here is why:

  • His figure of "200-250 churches" operating today in Turkey is inflated.
  • His claim that "many churches do not offer services every week due to insufficient clergy or local Christian populations" is misleading. The real reason most churches do not offer services is that they have been converted to mosques, museums, stables or warehouses, if not outright destroyed.

Our own research indicates more than 4,000 Christian churches were operating in Turkey prior to 1915:

  • More than 2,000 Armenian churches of all denominations (around 2,000 Armenian Apostolic churches, 200 Armenian Catholic churches, and 150 Armenian Evangelical churches);
  • More than 2000 Greek Orthodox churches;
  • More than 100 Assyrian churches; and
  • A small number of Bulgarian, Russian, Georgian and Coptic churches.

Only 178 of these 4,000 churches (less than 5%) are still operating today in Turkey, mostly located in Istanbul:

  • 52 Armenian churches: 40 affiliated with the Armenian Patriarchate (34 in Istanbul, 6 in other regions); 2 Armenian Evangelical churches in Istanbul; and 10 Armenian Catholic churches in Istanbul;
  • 87 Greek Orthodox churches (74 in Istanbul, 13 in other regions);
  • 20 Roman Catholic churches (12 in Istanbul, 8 in other regions);
  • 14 Assyrian churches; and
  • 5 churches affiliated with other denominations.

Amb. Ricciardone’s shameful attempt to minimize the destruction of thousands of Christian churches by the Ottoman authorities and Republic of Turkey is reprehensible. Given his false and evasive answers on this and many other issues, he should not be allowed to represent the United States in Turkey.