A recent article in the New York Times alleging that the Turkish state aims to seize churches and lands of Armenian people living in southeast Turkey has been slammed for being a mouthpiece for baseless claims and lacking the core values of journalism.
Ceylan Yeğinsu's article alleges that "the Turkish government has seized the historic Armenian Surp Giragos Church, a number of other churches and large swaths of property," in southeastern Diyarbakır province as part of a governmental plan to restore the PKK terror-stricken region. However, it contends that the government secretly wants to seize churches and properties of Armenians based on the concerns of some locals.
Yeğinsu's article caused controversy as the aforementioned claim has been linked to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government's plan to restore the southeast, which was damaged heavily during terror operations against the PKK.
There are currently 612 cultural assets in the Sur district of Diyarbakır province. Of the 612 assets, two fortresses, 18 mansions, 53 mosques and churches, 19 shrines, 447 historic houses are waiting to be restored by the government as part of a master plan to revive and restore the region following months-long counterterror operations.
There are many historic and touristic mosques waiting to be restored as well. Kurşunlu Mosques, Hacı Hamit Mosque, Sheikh Mutahhar Mosque are some of the damaged mosques in the district in addition to the Surp Giragos Church that is mentioned in the New York Times article.
Toros Alcan, an Armenian Turk chosen as the representative of minorities in the General Directorate of Foundations, said Yeğinsu's article is unrealistic and lacks knowledge of the issue. "It is a far-fetched article. Such a case is impossible by law," Alcan said, adding that it would contradict the views of both President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AK Party. Slamming Yeğinsu's journalism, Alcan said she could have called him or other minorities or deputies representing minorities. "She could have called Diyarbakır deputies or local authorities," he added. Stressing that the Armenian community felt panicked just like the Turkish community when the news broke, Alcan said they were informed afterwards and the panic ended.
Speaking to Daily Sabah on the issue, Markar Esayan, an Armenian-Turkish deputy for the AK Party, criticized the article and called it "provocative and ill-intentioned." "This matter has been discussed in Parliament as well," Esayan said, adding that there can be no such issue in the seizure of mosques, churches or synagogues in Turkey. "This restoration plan is very helpful for locals. Terror-stricken places will be restored and compensated for by the government," he said. Underscoring that the Turkish state revives churches and synagogues that have been ignored, Esayan said AK Party governments have returned more than 400 properties to the Armenian community since it came to power in 2002.
Adnan Ertem, the head of the General Directorate of Foundations, also commented on the issue, asserting that such misleading articles only play into the hands of the PKK terrorist organization. "It is a completely far-fetched lie," Ertem said, adding that the article is similar to terror propaganda. "There is definitely no such intention or thought. I cannot understand the reason for such lies. It aims to prevent attempts to revive the terror-stricken region," he added.
Explaining that mosques are also included in the restoration plan in addition to the aforementioned churches, Ertem said the plan is being carried out in collaboration with a number of ministries. "Torched and damaged mosques are also in the plan. I explained this to authorities from the U.S. Embassy, too," he added, saying, "It is legally impossible as well."
In an interview with Daily Sabah in 2014 he said, "There are around 1,500 to 1,600 properties belonging to community foundations and 1,000 of these properties have been returned so far."
Commenting on Yeğinsu's article, Galip Ensarioğlu, a Diyarbakır deputy for the AK Party, said it is aimed at spreading false information and lies. He asserted: "I expressed this to the U.S. envoy as well. It is disinformation. We are a government that returns the properties of minorities. There is no such thing planned in Diyarbakır." Ensarioğlu also stressed that mosques are included in the restoration plan besides churches and synagogues. In addition, he said Yeğinsu's article is "thoroughly a lie."
Intensive anti-PKK operations started mid-December 2015 after the terrorist organization turned urban areas into battlefields by digging ditches, erecting barricades and setting off explosives. PKK terror has displaced more than 300,000 locals from the region. After the operations left many districts damaged, the government set up a master plan to restore the region.