US envoy in Turkey faces Armenian pressure over church remarks

Armenian clerics and US Armenian groups have been stepping up pressure on the US ambassador to Turkey after the diplomat said most of the Christian churches functioning prior to 1915 are still operating as churches in Turkey.

In a written response to questions submitted to him by US Senator Robert Menendez earlier this month, Francis Ricciardone said a majority of Christian churches operating in the territory of present-day Turkey prior to 1915 are still functioning today, drawing strong reactions from Armenian groups in the US.

Last week, in a strongly worded letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ken Hachikian, the chairman of influential US-based Armenian diaspora organization the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), demanded a retraction, correction and apology for Ambassador Ricciardone’s statement covering-up Ottoman and Republican Turkey’s systematic destruction of thousands of Christian churches.

The ANCA also encouraged “concerned citizens to contact Secretary Clinton via the State Department Comment Line to offer their views regarding Ambassador Ricciardone’s misstatements.”

Faced with pressure, the US envoy on Monday partially backtracked on his earlier remarks. “With your permission, I would appreciate the opportunity to clarify the record. The corrected text should read as follows. Most of the Christian churches functioning prior to 1915 are no longer operating as churches. Christian community contacts in Turkey report that a total of 200-250 churches that date to 1915 and before offer Christian worship services at least once a year. Many churches do not offer services every week due to insufficient clergy or local Christian populations. Some churches of significance operate as museums, others have been converted into mosques or put to other uses. Still others have fallen into disrepair or may have been totally destroyed,” ANCA quoted him as saying in a correction, apparently addressing Senator Menendez.

But the Armenian groups in the US say this is not enough and accuse him of artificially inflating the number of currently operating Christian houses of worship in Turkey.

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