March 16, 2005
The briefing was held at 10:00 a.m. in Room 2360 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C., Christopher Smith, co-chairman, moderating.
C. SMITH: Good morning. My name is Chris Smith. I'm the co- chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Just very briefly, by way of background, I have served on the commission since my second term, which began in 1983. And this briefing is an important briefing. And we'll get into the substance very, very shortly.
But I do want to recognize that it's so good to see my old friend and colleague, Bob Edgar. Bob and I served on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs for a large number of years. Matter of fact, we were just talking. One of his chief assistants is now the director of government affairs for the Paralyzed Veterans of America and is doing a great job there.
But it's so good to see you, Bob, after all these years.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I do convene now this Helsinki Commission briefing to highlight congressional concerns regarding systematic Turkish government efforts to undermine the existence of the Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey.
With the date for E.U. negotiations now set, Turkey has taken bold steps to bring its laws into harmony with European Union standards. At the same time, however, Turkey's policies concerning religious freedom and the Greek Orthodox Church have come under increased international scrutiny, and so they should.
Our concerns include property expropriation and continued closure of the Halki Seminary, obstacles to ownership and repair of churches, and the steadfast refusal of Turkish authorities to recognize the ecumenical status of the Orthodox patriarch.
Today we have an outstanding group of panelists who will speak to these concerns. And this information, by the way, will then be passed on to members of Congress, House and Senate, so that they can be better informed about what is really going on.
In addition, the Helsinki Commission will hold a second briefing in the near future to highlight problems faced by Muslims and other faiths in Turkey.
The justification for property seizures is complex, but the core issue is simple: The patriarch-owned properties have shrunk by almost 80 percent, from 8,000 in 1936 to 1,700 at present; 1,100 of the remaining 1,700 are not legally recognized and are especially vulnerable to seizure.
There is a pattern: Properties are threatened with expropriation when the population of a religious community drops below a certain level. The government then determines a property has fallen into disuse, as they call it, and assumes its management.
Last September, Turkey did adopt regulations to improve the way the size of the religious community is gauged to give communities with legal status the ability to acquire new property.
However, the legislation ignores the fact that these seizures are fundamentally illegal, while not allowing communities to reclaim hundreds of properties expropriated by the state.
The most glaring property issues regarding the Orthodox Theological School of Halki, seized in 1971, when the government nationalized all institutions of higher education.
The continued closure of the only educational institution in Turkey for Orthodox Christian leadership is untenable and unconscionable.
This has had a deleterious effect on the ability of Turkey's Greek Orthodox citizens to train the next generation of clergy.
The Greek Orthodox Church in other communities, like the Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Catholic churches, have been deprived of important cultural sites and places of worship.
Reformers should terminate the ability of the government agencies to seize the property of a religious community, while also simplifying the process for groups to regain clear title to their lost holdings.
Should there be no local community, the property should revert to the religious community and not to the state.
Reportedly, the foreign ministry's reform monitoring committee is advocating for reforms that ensure the return of seized property or the payment of compensation. I certainly hope this happens.
The issue is, indeed, black and white. Property must be returned and expropriations must end.
Members of the Helsinki Commission have been constant and vocal advocates for the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as other religious groups experiencing problems in Turkey, be they Muslim, Christian or other.
Current Turkish policies violate OSCE commitments and threaten the viability of the patriarch's presence in Istanbul.
Turkey has a proud history of religious tolerance, but current government policies appear targeted to bring about the eventual exodus of the Greek Orthodox from Turkey entirely.
I urge the government of Turkey to continue with its good reform program, but take immediate actions to support the Orthodox citizens and bring its laws and policies into conformity with the OSCE commitments.
I'd like to now turn our program to Elizabeth Pryor, who is one of our experts on the Helsinki Commission, who will be introducing our distinguished panel. And then we will go into the briefing itself.
PRYOR: It is my pleasure to introduce our distinguished panelists today. After their presentations, we'll take questions.
PRYOR: After the presentations, we'll be taking questions from the floor. And you can also get a copy of the proceedings. Usually, they're available within 24 hours from our Web site, which is www.csce.gov.
Our first panelist today will be His Eminence, Archbishop Demetrios, who was elected archbishop of America on August 19th, 1999, by the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarch, convened by His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
He was enthroned as the spiritual leader of 1.5 million Greek Orthodox Christians in America at the Archdiosean Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York City on September 18th, 1999.
Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and Exarch of Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, is the sixth Archbishop of America since the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese was established in 1922.
Our next panelist after this will be....
For the continuation of this transcript, click on this link http://www.csce.gov/briefings.cfm?briefing_id=338 and once you are in the website, click on the link to the complete "Un-Official Transcript."
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