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Embassy Row

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2011

ARMENIANS FORCE REVISION

An intense campaign by Armenian-Americans forced the U.S. ambassador to Turkey to back off claims that most churches in Turkey are still functioning more than 100 years after Turkish Muslims began killing Armenian Christians and destroying their places of worship.

Ambassador Francis Ricciardone, a career diplomat, corrected earlier remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that led to outrage in the politically influential Armenian-American community.

Critics also complained in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and top Armenian religious leaders also denounced Mr. Ricciardone for his comments.

Asking to "clarify the record," the ambassador earlier this month revised his remarks at his Aug. 2 Senate confirmation hearing, held to consider extending his recess appointment, which expires at the end of the year.

In his latest comments, Mr. Ricciardone admitted that "most churches [in Turkey] functioning prior to 1915 are no longer operating as churches."

However, his revision failed to satisfy critics like Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America.

Mr. Hamparian on Monday called the ambassador's corrected testimony "half a step back from the most offensive and obviously incorrect aspects" of his original remarks.

"He just keeps digging himself into a deeper hole as an apologist for [Turkey]," Mr. Hamparian said.

The ambassador sparked the original dispute in a written response to a question from Sen. Robert Menendez at the confirmation hearing. The New Jersey Democrat asked Mr. Ricciardone how many of the "more than 2,000" churches in Turkey before 1915 are still operating today.

The ambassador responded, "Most of the churches functioning prior to 1915 are still operating as churches."

However, in his revised remarks, Mr. Ricciardone conceded that only 200 to 250 churches are still functioning in Turkey. Armenian church experts say only 40 churches are still operating.

The year, 1915, was the beginning of what most historians call the Armenian Genocide, when troops of the old Ottoman Turkish Empire started killing as many as 1.5 million Armenians. Turkey disputes those figures and denies that the Ottoman Turks ever embraced a deliberate policy of genocide.

Armenians also cite earlier massacres in the 1890s as evidence that the Ottomans had a long history of violence against minorities.

Mr. Ricciardone's original comments brought denunciations from leading Armenian-American religious leaders.

Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan, prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of the Eastern United States, called the ambassador's remarks "so blatantly false that [they] cannot remain unchallenged." He said the Ottomann Turks "systematically destroyed or confiscated" most churches.

Even the ambassador's revised remarks brought more criticism after he suggested that few churches in Turkey hold weekly services because of a shortage of clergymen or worshippers.

Mr. Hamparian called that statement "misleading."

"The real reason most churches do not offer services is that they have been converted to mosques, museums, stables or warehouses, if not outright destroyed," he said.

FORD GETS OUT OF TOWN

The U.S. ambassador to Syria left Damascus on Tuesday for an unannounced visit to a southern city at the epicenter of the protests against President Bashar Assad.

The U.S. Embassy told reporters in Syria that Ambassador Robert Ford received permission from the government before visiting Jassem in the restive Dara'a region.

With the town "swarming with secret police," Mr. Ford walked around the streets and talked to several people, one Jassem resident told a reporter.

Mr. Ford angered Mr. Assad when he visited another flash-point city, Homs, in July. The Syrian government responded with travel restrictions on foreign ambassadors, leading Washington to retaliate with restrictions on Syrian diplomats in the United States.

Syrian security forces are accused of killing about 2,000 unarmed protesters in the five-month-long uprising.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297 or email jmorrison@washingtontimes.com. The column is published on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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