WASHINGTON, D.C. – Speaking at the Ninth Annual St. Andrew’s Human Rights and Religious Freedom Reception on Capitol Hill, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights David L. Phillips addressed the subject of “Turkey’s Targeting of Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Syria,” reported the Armenian Assembly of America.
“I want to thank David for coming and taking part in this event. His outstanding scholarship in this area and his experience as a practitioner of diplomacy and foreign policy is well-documented,” Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) said in his welcome statement.
“We are doing it this year in the leg of this incredible and terrible assault by Turkey into northern Syria. And while it makes these issues very raw and ripe, what David will be speaking to in terms of the targeting of ethnic and religious minorities in Syria is something that is a longstanding problem when you look at Turkey and the behavior of this president,” the Congressman added.
Honorary hosts of the reception include the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY) and Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-TX); Helsinki Commission Chairman Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Co-Chairman Senator Roger F. Wicker (R-MS), and former Chairman Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD); Hellenic Caucus Co-Chairs Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and John Sarbanes (D-MD); Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Co-Chairman James P. McGovern (D-MA); and International Religious Freedom Caucus Co-Chairs Juan Vargas (D-CA) and Bilirakis.
“Instead of placating Turkey, U.S. officials should reject Erdogan’s war-mongering and genocide denial,” Phillips said. “The victims of Turkey’s past and present genocide cry out for justice.”
Citing the devastating attack last week in Deir el-Zor where Turkish-backed forces executed Father Hovsep Bedoyan, the Pastor of the Armenian Catholic community of Qamishli, and his father while they were on their way to inspect the Armenian Catholic Church in the city, Phillips illustrated that “Turkey’s invasion has put Syria’s Christians at-risk.”
Philips shared other examples of attacks on Christians in the area. He noted that in 2014 the Armenian Christian town of Kessab in northwest Syria was attacked by jihadists with support from the Turkish military and that the attacks were launched from Turkish territory, resulting in 675 families being uprooted, 15 families taken hostage, and 3 Armenian churches damaged and desecrated.
Phillips explained at the congressional event that Turkey has been a lifeline for ISIS, and has continued the genocidal policies of the Ottoman Empire by openly supporting jihadist terrorism. Some of the Christians targeted in northern Syria include Armenians and Assyrians whose ancestors survived the Armenian Genocide at the beginning of the 20th century, and are themselves experiencing the same type of ethnic cleansing today by Turkey and ISIS.
He pointed out that Turkish-backed Islamists has been targeting “apostates” – Shiites, Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians in Syria and Iraq – over the past five years.
“Mosul’s 60,000 Christians were executed, displaced, or trafficked as sex slaves. The same fate befell Christians in the Nineveh Plains and northern Syria. ISIS converted ancient churches into mosques, madrassas, and prisons. They tore down crosses and used chisels to deface tombstones in church graveyards,” Phillips said.
“Christian churches and institutions, including schools and hospitals, were destroyed by Turkish–backed militias. ISIS execution videos showed the beheading of priests and community leaders, which included images of eleven desecrated churches.”
Phillips also turned to the Christians under attack within Turkey’s own borders.
“The Armenian and Greek communities are targeted in Turkey. The Turkish authorities have seized and failed to return Armenian Church properties. The Turkish government controlled even the election of the next Armenian Church leader, the Patriarch, in Turkey,” Phillips remarked.
Others in the human rights community have also raised the concerns voiced by Phillips.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) sounded the alarm on Patriarch elections in Turkey, which is scheduled to take place on December 11, 2019.
USCIRF Chair Tony Perkins said: “The Turkish government has increasingly interfered in the internal affairs of religious communities by placing gratuitous conditions on electoral processes for religious leaders.” Perkins urged U.S. policymakers to raise the importance of this election with the Turkish government.
“This latest interference is just one of many that has deprived the Armenian Apostolic Church of its right to choose its spiritual leadership for almost a decade,” said USCIRF Vice Chair Gayle Manchin.
The Assembly has addressed the importance of safety for Christians in Turkey with the U.S. Department of State and government officials. And in September, the Assembly held a panel on religious freedom in Turkey and the Middle East at its 2019 National Advocacy Conference, with remarks provided by USCIRF Commissioner Kristina Arriaga.
The Assembly has also been acutely concerned about the situation of the Armenian community in Syria. Following the numerous terrorist attacks in northern Syria supported by Turkish-backed forces, such as in Qamlishi and Kessab, the Assembly has repeatedly called for the United States to take immediate action to protect the religious minorities in the region.
As Phillips pointed out, evangelist Reverend Pat Robertson had previously stated: “As the U.S. prepares to draw down, Syrian Christians fear they’ll be wiped out. It appears U.S. policy has the potential to put 2,000 years of Christian tradition and history at risk.”
“David Phillips has always been a great friend of the Armenians. In his remarks on the occasion of the ninth annual St. Andrew’s Human Rights & Religious Freedom Reception, he strongly alluded to all the war crimes that Turkey, under Erdogan’s dictatorship, has committed, targeting different ethnic and religious minorities in Syria and elsewhere, including the abuse of human rights and lack of freedom. He also mentioned how Turkish-backed forces assassinated the Armenian priest and his father on November 11th in Deir el-Zor,” Armenian Assembly of America Board Member Annie Simonian Totah stated. “We are very grateful to Congressman John Sarbanes for sponsoring this annual event which brings together different Christian groups and makes sure their voices are heard.”
In his welcome remarks, Congressman Sarbanes also acknowledged Armenian Assembly Board Member Annie Simonian Totah as a longtime friend and “an advocate really unrivaled on issues she feels passionate about.”