WASHINGTON, DC – Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, President Obama’s “recess” appointee to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, in a written response to questions submitted to him by Senator Robert Menendez (R-NJ), made the patently incorrect claim that “most of the Christian churches functioning [on the territory of present-day Turkey] prior to 1915 are still operating as churches,” reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
“Ambassador Ricciardone’s demonstrably false assertion betrays a callous disregard for Ottoman Turkey’s wholesale destruction of Christian churches, and for the fate of the millions of Christian faithful, who worshipped in their homeland within these holy sites until their genocidal annihilation,” said Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the ANCA. “Whether his response is due to a truly remarkable lack of awareness or, instead, to a willful distortion of the facts of history to fit Ankara’s genocide denial narrative, this nominee has clearly shown he’s unable to effectively advance U.S. interests or American values as our nation’s representative in Ankara.”
The historical record shows that of the over 2000 Armenian Churches that were functioning on the territory of present-day Turkey in 1915, less than 50 operate today.
Whitewashing Religious Freedom Abuses in Turkey:
Ambassador Ricciardone’s response fits into a pattern of statements glossing over well-documented and far-reaching religious freedom abuses in Turkey. Earlier this year, during his July confirmation hearing, in response to Delaware Senator Chris Coons’ question as to what steps he had taken to promote religious freedom in Turkey, Amb. Ricciardone offered this evasive answer: “…very interestingly, they [the Turkish Government] follow our debates about personal freedom and religious freedom and they say ‘Here is how you can understand this, American Ambassador. In your country, you have in recent years made a distinction between freedom of religion and the concept of freedom from religion. For too long in our modern republic we focused on preventing the intrusion of religion in our national life and political life. We are quite comfortable to be observant Muslims, please don’t call us Islamists, by the way,’ they tell us, ‘but to the extent someone is praying as a Christian or a Jew, it really doesn’t bother us at all – why should it? It’s no threat to the state, on the contrary, we are rather proud of our diversity and we happy to have them do it. As to their property issues, let us take a fresh look at this and make sure they get justice.’”
This assessment is sharply at odds with reports by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which raised the following alarm in its 2011 report: “The Turkish government continues to impose serious limitations on freedom of religion or belief, thereby threatening the continued vitality and survival of minority religious communities in Turkey.”
Reservations about the Ambassador’s willingness to accept the Turkish government’s talking points on religious tolerance at face value echo concerns expressed last fall by then Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS), who, during the last session of Congress, placed a hold on Ambassador Ricciardone’s nomination to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. In an August 16, 2010, letter to Secretary Clinton, Sen. Brownback voiced disapproval of Ricciardone’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, noting, among other things, that “he quickly adopted the positions and arguments of his Egyptian diplomatic counterparts.”
In the wake of Senator Brownback’s hold, President Obama circumvented Senate objections by issuing a “recess appointment” of Amb. Ricciardone. The Senate must approve his nomination in the upcoming months, if Ambassador Ricciardone is to continue to serve in Turkey for more than one year, of the usual three-year ambassadorial term. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will likely take up his nomination upon their return from the August Congressional recess.
The written exchange on this subject between Senator Menendez and Ambassador Ricciardone is provided below:
Sen. Menendez: “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: “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.”