‘Abandoned’ Armenian Properties around the World
Armenians all over the world are eager to recover properties left within the borders of the Republic of Turkey after the Genocide. The Ittihadist Party, which perpetrated the Genocide and carried out the expulsion of the Armenian population from the Ottoman Empire, intended not only to make the country more homogenously Turkic by the elimination of the Armenians, but to enrich their coffers by confiscating the properties and wealth from the Armenians.
Talaat Pasha’s Black Book, discovered and published by Turkish historian Murad Bardakci, fully demonstrates how meticulously Talaat had tabulated Armenian properties and population demographics for extermination and expropriation purposes.
Later on, the Kemalist government passed a law designating as “abandoned properties” what was not claimed by the Armenians. Today, every piece of confiscated property, returned to the Armenian community by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is hailed with gratification. At one point, even Archbishop Aram Atesian claimed that the Istanbul Armenian community cannot manage any more returned properties.
Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia Aram I is suing the Turkish government to acquire the Monastery of Sis and lawyers are after the lands in Incirlik on which a US air base operates, owned by Armenians and their surviving descendants.
Every effort to recover lost or confiscated properties is commendable. It must also not be forgotten that we have valuable properties outside Turkey’s borders. We consider many of them abandoned; however the use of the term is relative because they are not technically abandoned but somehow their use by the larger Armenian community is hampered, denied or limited.
The case of the “abandoned” properties became a topical issue, when the fate of the lands at Sevres, near Paris, owned by the Mekhitarist congregation, was brought to public attention. A 13,000-square-meter of property in the historic city of Sevres, where the eponymous treaty was signed in 1920, is at stake at this point.
A recent visit by Monsignor Levon Zekiyan and President Armen Sarkissian brought the plight of the property into public debate.
This is not the first Armenian property to be lost in France. The French-Armenian community has experienced similar losses before, when unscrupulous wheeler dealers took over the Armenian center on Rue de Trevise, evicting all Armenian organizations housed there.
At this time, a serious debate is raging in the French-Armenian community and the Mekhitarist congregation which owns the property and was the site of the Samuel Mouradian School which opened in 1928 and closed in 1997.
The school educated many teachers, priests, educators and community leaders. Since its closure, it has been left to deteriorate and has become an eyesore and thus the municipal authorities have threated to take over the property.
This is again the fate of many Armenian institutions which grow through community donations and then are left to the mercies of aging lay or religious leaders, before they are lost in controversial deals when they are swindled by third parties.
Several decades ago, the Mekhitarist congregation of Venice fell victim to a bank fraud and lost properties on Lido island and Asolo, valued at that time worth more than $50 million.
Even the island monastery on San Lazzaro was at stake and it was saved through Alex Manoogian’s generosity.
The fate of the Sevres property has been a topic of private and public discussion by many parties, some consideration was given to the idea of converting it into a Genocide studies center. At other times, it was suggested that it be converted to a conference center. But nothing has been achieved because of internal dissensions.
In 2016, Pope Francis appointed Monsignor Zekiyan as his representative to save the property. Zekiyan is known for his organizational skills and currently is serving as the head of the Armenian Catholic community in Turkey. At this time, a plan is underway to build income-generating facilities to finance the needs of the complex as a cultural and educational center.
It may be a deviation from the topic if we discuss the fate of both Mekhitarist congregations, in Venice and Vienna, which are in hot water.
Mkhitar Sebastatsi moved his congregation to the island of San Lazzaro in 1717. Later on, some disgruntled priests severed ties with the congregation and moved to Trieste. But when Napoleon occupied Austria, they were given official recognition to establish a monastery in Vienna in 1810.
Political parties have always been criticized that they are at each other’s throats. Few realize that these God-fearing members of the clergy have not talked to each other for almost a century. But their competition has benefitted the Armenian communities as both have become bastions of scholarship and have run networks of schools throughout the diaspora.
With the loss of many of the priests, the Vienna congregation was weakened and eventually fell under the jurisdiction of the Venice one, compounding the woes of the entire Mekhitarist movement.
The fate of the Mekhitarist congregation is not a singular case. There are many similar cases in other parts of the world.
Now that Armenia is independent, all these cases must become part of Armenia’s diasporan agenda. We claim that the various succeeding administrations in Armenia have not invested enough resources to study and learn about the diaspora’s assets and problems. Granted, Armenia is not a powerful country to intervene in the affairs of other countries to protect the interest of their fellow Armenians, as Turkey does defending the rights of Turkmens in Iraq or the rights of Tatars in Crimea and even the fate of the Uyghurs in China.
In terms of Armenian interests, the Calcutta Armenian academy is another case to be studied.
Through the 16th to the 19th centuries, Jugha Armenians in Iran had ventured to develop commerce and trade in the Far East, establishing prosperous Armenian trading posts and communities as far away as Manchuria, Harbin, China; Surabaya, Indonesia; Singapore, India and more. Most of the wealth accumulated in those communities has been lost. In addition, many assets have disappeared in India. But one institution is alive — the Armenian Philanthropic Academy in Calcutta, founded by Astvatsatur Muradghanian and Mnatsakan Vartanian.
It was established in 1821 and has educated many generations of Armenians from Iran. Over the years, the academy has also educated students from India, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Azerbaijan, mostly from Armenian communities.
When the Armenian community numbers dwindled, the academy fell into disrepair and for a long time, its fate was in limbo. Many assets in India were lost in the community because the laws did not allow the transfer of funds to other countries. The academy survived but its fate remained in limbo. Finally, in 1999, the High Court of West Bengal ordered that the Catholicos of the Armenian Church “administrate the school” along the terms of the submissions made in the application to the Calcutta High Court.
In the same year, the first group of students from Armenia arrived. His Holiness Karekin II has visited the academy twice.
By sheer luck, this case has somehow had a happy ending, by bringing a “lost” institution under the jurisdiction of the supreme Patriarch of the Armenians.
The church and government authorities must have a policy to pursue and recover assets scattered all over the world by the Armenian people and today, they have to be considered endangered properties.
Next week, we will discuss other cases whose destiny may not be as promising.
(This is the first part of a three-part series on the fate of Armenian properties in the diaspora.)
By Edmond Y. Azadian
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