Return Our Churches: Murder, Theft and Denial

Property restitution is an indispensable step to right the wrongs of the past and, thus, to legitimize one’s system as free and just; hence a democracy. The Republic of Turkey projects itself as a modern democracy, a state that has successfully fused secular and religious elements and aspires not only to represent the Muslim world in the West, perhaps even join the European Union, but also to serve as a paradigm of peacefully channeling Islamism into democratic forms. For all the self-advertisement, however, Ankara fails an important litmus test of democracy. It has consistently refused to return property stolen from its citizens. Most egregiously, this concerns Christian churches taken away from the Armenians and others.

Throughout history, property confiscation and looting have always figured prominently in conflicts and power struggles. While the theft may not always be carried out in the same fashion, the end goal is universal—control over (or extermination of) the captive peoples and self-enrichment for the “victors.” The confiscations tend to be conducted in conjunction with arrests, deportations, exile and murder of so-called enemies. The twentieth century witnessed massive takings by the Communists, Nazis and Ottomans (later Turkish Republic) from their class, racial and ethno-religious enemies, respectively.

When it suits the rulers of tyrannical regimes, their subjects are allowed to keep their property but must pay protection money as taxes or contributions. When expedient, however, the tyrants order wholesale confiscations. So there is a sick logic to the cycle of economic exploitation and expropriation. Oppressive regimes are economic parasites of their captive people, but occasionally find it efficacious to disempower the victims completely by total expropriation without recourse. This is oftentimes accompanied by a wholesale slaughter, as was the case with the Armenian massacres.

Systematic property theft empowers the tyrants to revise the history of the conquered. It also allows them to deny or eliminate their enemies’ very identity altogether. The Nazis are best known for the industrialization of murder, but the extensiveness of their property takings, particularly artworks, continues to reverberate. At home, Third Reich officials mainly targeted Jewish properties in order to enrich themselves and Aryanize the nation. Outside of Germany, the Nazis also lashed out at other “inferiors,” including Christian Polish elites, who were despoiled and selectively exterminated. The Bolsheviks and their Communist spin-offs sought to eradicate anything that reeked of tradition: family, religion and private property. The Ottomans taxed, extorted, deported, and, ultimately, murdered Armenians and confiscated their churches, homes, shops and other assets to fill their coffers and more easily Islamicize the occupied territories. Sinister and deceptive like the Nazis and the Reds, they also claimed that the owners had “abandoned” their properties. All either sealed land titles or destroyed property registries and other evidence of ownership. The Communists, Nazis and Ottomans all distributed confiscated assets among their cronies, sold them at auction or through their version of the real estate market thereby “privatizing” the loot.

Powerful and influential churches are one of the greatest threats to a repressive regime. The threat is perhaps even greater when religion and nationality are inextricably linked, as is the case with our Eastern Christian brethren. The Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches, as well as a number of Protestant denominations with Armenian following, are major property owners with hefty bank accounts in the holy business of saving souls, educating the faithful, caring for orphans and the elderly, and providing for the poor. Although any government can legislate churches out of the social welfare sector, taking church properties deprives them of the ability to generate income and of independence from the government. The faithful are denied the freedom of assembly in those properties because heaven knows when the persecuted gather in groups they are likely to complain, dissent and organize against their oppressors. Moreover, when churches lose their properties and ability to finance and conduct their holy works, the oppressor becomes the sole provider of its perverse model of social welfare.

For centuries enemies of Christianity have maliciously attempted to eliminate churches from our daily lives by whatever means possible. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have shown no signs of a slowdown. The Bolsheviks “liberated” Russians from “religious propaganda,” scalped Orthodox priests, tortured and shot the faithful, confiscated and vandalized churches and monasteries, took over church-owned lands, and looted centuries-old religious icons and relics. The Communists in Czechoslovakia forced priests to take oaths of loyalty to the Communist regime, took over all church properties, conducted “scientific” experiments on clergy, often arrested and executed them, and nationalized Christian schools (mainly Catholic). In other Communist countries, such as Cuba and Poland, the secret police infiltrated church organizations like Catholic youth groups to spy on activities and compromise the faithful. The Spanish Republicans (Communists) raped nuns and murdered priests during the Civil War. The Ottomans first targeted the religious, and then systematically eliminated Christian laities such as Armenian Apostolic, Assyrian, Catholic and Greek Orthodox among others.

During World War I as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the Turks unleashed a brutal extermination campaign against the Armenian people and violently displaced them from their ancestral lands. The list of Turkish crimes against the Christian minority is endless: arrested and executed the intelligentsia; decapitated children and men and proudly displayed the severed heads, sometimes posing in pictures with them; drove women and children through the Syrian and Mesopotamian deserts, denied them food and water, stripped, raped and tortured them and left them to die. Turks stole children and, along with those orphaned by the massacres, gave them to Muslim families to be raised in denial of their ancestry and religion. The Ottomans destroyed churches and monasteries or converted them into mosques, warehouses, museums and other facilities. The confiscation of property, including churches, continued in various phases thereafter in the effort to complete the Islamization.

Since the onset of the Armenian Genocide Catholic leaders have denounced Ottoman acts. In 1915 Pope Benedict XV wrote to Sultan Mehmed V condemning the massacres and publicly expressed his concern for Armenian lives. Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis criticized the Genocide. Pope Francis in particular has long maintained close ties with the Armenian community in Buenos Aires and referred to the mass murders as the first genocide of the twentieth century. It ought to be noted however, that Pope Benedict XVI dodged the explicit use of the term genocide as have past U.S. presidents—a point of contention for the hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the United States. Unlike President Bush at the time, Pope Benedict XVI at least had the good sense to oppose Turkey’s admission into the European Union.

The laundry list of past Turkish misdeeds is lengthy, but many continue. Primarily, all Turkish leadership since the Genocide has denied the events of the twentieth century. Very few properties have ever been returned and even then most restitutions have been largely symbolic. Compensation payments for death and suffering have not been made. The discrimination against Christians, including Catholics, endures. Although the Holy See has long maintained diplomatic relations with Turkey, Catholics are not legally recognized there. The persecution of this minority group is a little-known reality that is vividly demonstrated by the murder of Catholic priests including the head of Turkey’s Catholic Church in 2010. The return of thousands of Christian church properties, including 200 Catholic properties confiscated by Ataturk, is a daunting task and disenfranchises Christians. Why does Turkey continue to get away with its evildoings?

Turkey’s economic and political strength are one reason the government manages to fend off addressing its current and historical abuses. The Ottomans and later the Turkish Republic built their wealth based on the massive Armenian confiscations valued today between $41,500,000,000 – $104,544,260,400 (including compensation payments for death and suffering). Sadly, international commercial relations and tourism have further bankrolled the Turkish leadership and military as well as the recipients of confiscated properties. The Turks, one of several dubious and unsavory allies of the United States, recently displayed their deep pockets at the impressive Turkish Pavilion of the 2014 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting & Exposition that promoted the country’s military wares. Encouragingly, attendees by and large avoided listening to their sales pitches, likely due to Turkish uncooperativeness in the fight against the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the United States government considers Turkey a country of economic and strategic interest. This results in diplomatic tiptoeing and semantic games with regard to Turkish abuses.

Another reason the Turks go unpunished is the forces that block the Armenian lobby around the world. The Armenian diaspora conduct organized lobbying efforts mostly to demand that the governments of their adopted homelands recognize the Armenian Genocide as such. A watered down version of the events is naturally unacceptable to them. Their campaign has been strongly condemned and counteracted by the Turkish government and others including those who wish to monopolize suffering (not without criticism). However, a secondary Armenian lobbying effort that is gaining some ground is the call for property restitution. On December 13, 2011 the United States House of Representatives passed H.R. 306 (112th). This resolution urges Turkey to safeguard its Christian heritage and to return confiscated church properties and end all forms of religious discrimination. Yet, the U.S. Senate failed to enact the March 8, 2012 S. Res 392 (112th) demanding the same. Most recently, H.R. 4347: Turkey Christian Churches Accountability Act passed in the House of Representatives on June 26, 2014. Renewed efforts are underway to have the same enacted by the Senate. These measures generally have no teeth, but maintain focus on Genocide issues while not explicitly using the polarizing term.

The confiscation of property can be swift and widespread, but its return to rightful owners and heirs is another matter. By and large, Jews have had the most success in recovering their properties. Jews also enjoy Hollywood and international support in their restitution efforts. The victims of Communism and the Ottoman Turks continue to struggle with the fact that their executioners were never put on trial nor demonized far and wide. Some of those who lost their properties to Communist regimes have succeeded in recovering their assets to varying degrees. However, Armenians have had no such luck. While Catholic and Orthodox Christians may not agree on theological matters like celibacy, the Immaculate Conception and papal authority, certainly we can support each other’s rights to our lives, properties and freedom.

Democracy is about justice and freedom, including property rights: to own and inherit. Freedom of private property is the best guarantee against state excesses, including in a democratic system. Further, democracy entails justice, including righting the wrongs of the past. Turkey should make up its mind: democracy or tyranny. Pretending to be the former and act like the latter is unsustainable in a civilized world.

Editor’s note: The image above is an Armenian Church in Trabzon in 1918 that was turned into an auction house used to distribute confiscated property.


Tania C. Mastrapa, Ph.D., is the founder of Mastrapa Consultants, a firm specializing in the restitution of confiscated property. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Property Rights in Transition and a Research Professor at the Institute of World Politics.

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