The Armenian Church’s ongoing legal effort to recover its ancient headquarters in Turkey is the first step in a larger campaign to reclaim all Armenian property seized by Ottoman Turks during the genocide, the worldwide leader of the church said this week. Aram I, the Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia, also warned in an interview with the New York Times that if Turkish authorities rejected a lawsuit filed by the church it would “deepen the divide” between Turkey and the Armenian diaspora.
The religious figure has been a leading proponent of an international campaign to promote recognition of the early-20th-century mass killings of 1.5 million Armenians as a genocide, a description the Turkish government rejects. And now part of the effort to put pressure on Ankara includes a push for reparations to the Armenian community, including the reclamation of Armenian properties seized by the Ottoman Empire during the course of the genocide.
Seeking the return of the church’s historic headquarters in Turkey’s Adana Province “is the first legal step,” Aram I said. “That will be followed by our claim to return all the churches, the monasteries, the church-related properties and, finally, the individual properties. We should move step by step.”
The church’s headquarters in Adana dates to 1293 and was among the tens of thousands of Armenian properties taken over and plundered by the Ottoman Turks in the last days of the empire, the Times reported. While the church no longer has the deeds to the significant historical site or other Armenian properties, Aram I has maintained that “the ownership is clear.” “They are Armenian. Nobody can question the ownership or identity or history of those properties,” he said.
The lawsuit, filed in Turkey’s Constitutional Court last month just days after the centennial of the start of the genocide, is an unprecedented step by the Armenian Church to use the Turkish legal system to recover the property. There are already indications that the legal proceedings might not yield the outcome church leaders are seeking. The mayor of Kozan, the town where the church’s historic headquarters is located, has rejected the idea of restoring the site to Armenian ownership, saying that “not even an iota of land is to be handed over to anyone.”
The lead lawyer in the suit has said, however, that if Turkish courts reject the case, he is planning to take it to the European Court of Human Rights, which requires that all domestic remedies be exhausted before hearing cases.