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Sassounian: Patriarchate’s Bold Move to Sue Turkish Government

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We must commend Acting Patriarch Aram Ateshian and the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul for making the bold move of suing the Turkish government for the return of historically significant Armenian properties.

Ateshian arrives in Sourp Giragos church in Diyarbakir in Oct. 2012 to preside over its reconsecration. (Photo by Khatchig Mouradian)

Turkish officials normally view such legal actions with hostility and exert great pressure on judges to reject property claims filed by minorities, making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to win similar lawsuits. Nevertheless, this is a necessary first step in order to be able to appeal the Turkish court’s expected negative ruling to the European Court of Human Rights, where a plaintiff has a much better chance of a fair hearing.

The lawsuit filed by the Patriarchate on March 14 seeks the return of Armenian properties belonging to Sanasarian College in Garin (Erzeroum), which were confiscated by the Turkish authorities following the genocide of 1915. The college’s extensive properties, now worth tens of millions of dollars, include nine plots of land in Garin, a garden house and vast farmland in the village of Aghveren, two plots in the village of Gez, and a large commercial property (khan) in the center of Constantinople (Istanbul).

Sanasarian College was founded in 1881 by a major endowment from Mgrdich Sanasarian, a wealthy businessman from Georgia who had settled in St. Petersburg, Russia. The generous benefactor donated additional properties to the college in the late 1800’s.

Prior to 1915, Sanasarian College played a prominent role as a modernizing force during the Armenian national awakening. It was a European-style liberal arts school with the specific purpose of preparing teachers and professionals in various fields to assist the rapid development of Western Armenia’s economy. During its brief existence, the college produced hundreds of graduates, including many who rose to prominent positions. Armen Garo, the Armenian Republic’s first ambassador to the United States in 1918, was an alumnus of Sanasarian College.

Garin was an important base of operations for the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) and its leaders who had taken residence there before 1915. One of the ARF’s founders, Rostom, was appointed as superintendent of Garin’s school system, which included Sanasarian College.

Some meetings of the momentous ARF 8th World Congress in 1914 were held in Sanasarian College buildings. The Congress was interrupted by the start of World War I. The Young Turk government dispatched to Garin a high-level delegation headed by Behaeddin Shakir, one of the masterminds of the Armenian Genocide, to pressure the ARF into collaborating with the government’s wartime efforts. The ARF Congress turned down the request. The college closed down in early 1915 and its entire faculty and many of its students were killed during the genocide. Shakir was assassinated by Armenian avengers in 1922 in Berlin.

Ironically, a few years later, Garin was converted from a hotbed of Armenian activism to a center of Turkish nationalism with the convening of the historic Erzeroum Congress by Kemal Ataturk in 1919. Currently, the Sanasarian College complex is a Turkish museum.

Commenting on the lawsuit, Ali Elbeyoglu, the Armenian Patriarchate’s lawyer, told Hurriyet newspaper: “The Sanasarian Foundation was granted to the Patriarchate by philanthropist Mgrdich Sanasarian in the 1800’s. The administration and management of the Sanasarian Foundation legally belongs to the Patriarchate… We are not going to content ourselves with the mere return of historical buildings. We are also going to demand compensation from the government’s General Directorate of Foundations for all material losses incurred by the Patriarchate since 1936.”

Earlier this year, the Armenian Patriarchate filed a separate lawsuit against the directorate general of foundations seeking the return of the Sanasarian Shopping Center (khan) in Istanbul. Even though the court imposed a temporary injunction, freezing all transactions involving the building’s disposition, the directorate general of foundations declared that it would not abide by the court’s order. Elbeyoglu reacted by declaring: “This runs counter to all international legal [norms] as well as the Treaty of Lausanne. The Patriarchate is still in possession of the title deed,” Hurriyet reported.

In the past, when I criticized the Patriarchate for making public statements against Armenian national interests, I was accused of not fully appreciating the special circumstances under which Armenians live in Turkey, and was told to show more sensitivity to the fact that they are basically hostages of the Turkish government. Since this article commends the Patriarchate’s bold legal action, I am concerned that my words of praise might make some Armenians in Turkey just as uncomfortable. I am simply trying to be fair and even-handed, offering criticism or praise, as the occasion merits.

9 Comments on Sassounian: Patriarchate’s Bold Move to Sue Turkish Government

  1. I agree that this is both a bold and welcome move. As the most important and visible institution and legacy connection to our historic properties, the church must take a leadership role. It is true that many of us in the western diaspora have not always understood the position and approach of the Armenians living in Turkey. It is a difficult environment especially for political and human rights activism. I think we all intuitively expect Armenians to be free to express our support of Armenian issues, but I think the murder of Hrant Dink has given us a reality check. All the more reason for courageous leaders to step forward and not let Hrant’s death be in vain.
    The Turks are learning that genocide leaves an infinite trail…..stolen properties, political causes to redress the wrongs and generations of descendants motivated by the silenced voices of their ancestors to endlessly pursue justice. This is another front in the long road to justice. Our brethren in Turkey have an important role. One day , historians will write that lengthy pursuit of justice was one of the Armenian nation’s finest hours…. that they didn’t forget and generations later they succeeded in reconciling our grief.

  2. avatar gaytzag palandjian // March 20, 2012 at 11:44 pm // Reply

    Some conveniently forget that prior to the ¨bold move¨ that Mr. Sassounian refers to ,by the acting Patriaarch/Patriarchate,sueing the Turkish Government, said issue of return of all chrisitian and /or jewish confiscated properties by Ottoman Turkey to be returned to lawfull owners,was raised in the U.S. Congress and ¨reccomended to ¨ ally republic of Turkey.
    In consequence of which the turkish governement softened up and Prime Mr. Erdogan ordered to attend to the issue.
    This in return might have been prompted,if you wish,when the Law criminalizing denial of the Armenian Genocide was passed,the other side of the ocean in France. Which was the doing of Mr. Sarkozy,president of France. After his official visit to Armenia,where he first anounced loud and clear, word, Genocide.Yes, he repeated in Armenian as well that it was ¨Tseghasbanutyun¨.
    It must have reverberrated quite paludibly,both far away and also next door.
    It now remains to be seen if it will be the beginning of a slow but continuous process of return of properties ,then material losses.Latter no doubt feasible,as well.

  3. avatar Hairenakitz on YouTube // March 21, 2012 at 10:58 am // Reply

    Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul after many years of hesitation since 1936, has now acted after the Turkish government enacted a measure that went into effect on Aug. 27, 2011, to return properties seized from minority foundations through the 1936 Declaration.
    Well, I am not sure to call this as a ‘BOLD’ move by the Patriarchate, but I’m sure it is a the ‘RIGHT’ move based on current Turkey’s intent to settle minority foundations dispute!

    • avatar Hairenakitz on YouTube // March 21, 2012 at 11:39 am //

      This follows an earlier Istanbul court ruling in favor of the Surp Pırgic Armenian Hospital-Foundation to impose an interim injunction over foundation lands that had been expropriated by the state and transferred over to Zeytinburnu Municipality in 1985.

      After all, everybody knows why this sudden Turkish laws came from.
      It’s the result of Diaspora activities through various government departments and parliaments to force Turkey to abide international laws.

      Does Armenian Patriachate of Istanbul know about this? I’m not sure!
      But, most important is that this time Patriarchate acted in time and lodged their claims after Armenian Hospital-Foundation.

  4. And what about Turks and Azeris suing Armenia for destroying all but one mosque in all of Armenia? Why don’t we discuss this, just as you’re all discussing this article?!!

    • International courts aren’t going anywhere you know. Take the “advice” you give to Armenians, if you have something to prove, take it to court.

  5. Ok Robert, here’s what you do. Provide the locations and details of the all the different mosques to the authorities in Moscow and then begin negotiations with the Russians- the inheritors of the Soviet Union- on having perhaps having them rebuilt and transferred to Turkish control (although you might run afoul of the Iranians on this one as they would also have a claim)- Remember, it was the Soviets who destroyed numerous churches in Armenia as well as a few mosques, however many there were. Let me also remind you that what mosques that remained after the Soviet period have been maintained by the Armenians.

  6. Robert
    Your comparison is so ridiculous that does not warrant an answer, but for those who might be interested in the question, most of the mosques in Armenia , which were not many, were ruined or fell into state of dilapidation, like many churches, in the Soviet period. The only ramaining one which was in a half-ruined state at the end of Soviet era, was reconstructed and renovated by the government of Armenia after independance. Also the mosque in Shusha is now being reconstructed. Confiscating or ruining places of worship of the religious minorities has never been a state policy in Armenia, in contrast to the policy of successive Turkish governments. Stop this nonsense.

  7. And Robert writes:
    And what about Turks and Azeris suing Armenia for destroying all but one mosque in all of Armenia? Why don’t we discuss this, just as you’re all discussing this article?!!

    Good Idea Robert ! Let the Turks and Azeris sue Armenia…

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