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Armenian Church Sues Turkey for Return of Seized Monastery

  • Dorian Jones

File - People attend a commemoration ceremony to mark the centenary of the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex in Yerevan, Armenia, April 2015.

File - People attend a commemoration ceremony to mark the centenary of the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the Tsitsernakaberd Memorial Complex in Yerevan, Armenia, April 2015.

The Armenian Apostolic Church has filed a case in Turkey's Constitutional Court for the return of land and the iconic Kozan monastery in Adana. The monastery once was the largest belonging to the Armenian Church in Turkey, and it is one of thousands of properties seized by the Turkish state.

This is widely seen as a groundbreaking legal case for the prospect of reclaiming the Catholicosate of Cilicia, which dates back to 1293, was taken over a century ago by Turkish authorities, during the mass killings of Armenians. Ankara has strongly denied the killings by Ottoman Turks was genocide.

Church spokesperson Teni Pirri-Simonian said the timing of the suit is deliberate.

"We are doing this 100 years after the genocide, for the youth. It is the center of our faith, it is the center of our identity. Therefore the church, by having its headquarters, is also giving life to all these symbols," said Pirri-Simonian. "Now if it would have its ripple effect, of course it will have it. The church left more than 1,000 churches in different parishes, in different towns that our people were living in before the genocide."

Pressuring Ankara

The case is not expected to be the last faced by Turkish authorities. Analysts say Yerevan and the wider Armenian Diaspora see the opening of the case as a means of adding pressure on Ankara to recognize the genocide claims.

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University said the Armenian Diaspora and its supporters are investing heavily in the project.

"There is now a worldwide effort to develop more and more claims at all levels. There are two big groups, and one is based in the United States and the other in France, who come with extensive records of properties confiscated or taken by force, illegal action," said Aktar.

Estimates of the value of the properties being sought could run into tens of billions of dollars. The Armenian Church in Istanbul, however, has remained silent about the case.

Journalist Fatih Gokhan Diler of Agos, Turkey’s bilingual Turkish Armenian newspaper, said the silence likely is a combination of rivalry and fear.

"There is [a] certain rivalry between the Church in Armenia and the Church in Istanbul. So they [are] not always on the same side on these kind of cases," said Diler. "And they do not want to speak much about Armenian genocide, confiscated Armenian properties and all hard issue. They cannot say openly their views, because they might be some problems coming from the government."

Turkey’s Constitutional Court

The ruling AK Party, which is in the midst of a general election, has not commented on the case. It did introduce a limited program of returning some confiscated properties taken from Turkey’s Christian minorities, but that program has ended.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court has not yet decided whether to accept this latest case filed by the Armenian Church.

The Armenian Church has said if it fails, it will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights; but in January, the Strasbourg court ruled in Turkey’s favor in the case of a local Armenian foundation seeking the return of a building in Istanbul.

Former European Court judge Riza Turmen warned it is far from certain the Armenian Church will be successful.

"These [are] very difficult cases because of the past history. When [going] to court, because of the time that has elapsed, there are many legal obstacles for these cases to become successful," said Turmen.

With potentially hundreds of cases by individual members of the Armenians Diaspora, as well the Armenian Church, observers warn that Ankara could be facing a wave of litigation, both nationally and internationally.