The Stew Reporting on government and politics

Waiting for justice

Politics | Congress passes Armenian Genocide resolution, but the president is reluctant to sign
by Harvest Prude
Posted 12/19/19, 03:53 pm

WASHINGTON—Congress officially acknowledged last week that the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians, and the forced deportation of nearly half a million others, constituted genocide.

Turkey protested, with a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying the recognition could “endanger the future of our bilateral relations.” President Donald Trump has so far continued the long-standing U.S. policy of not acknowledging the killings as genocide. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a brief statement Tuesday that the administration’s “position … has not changed.” Trump last described the event as “mass atrocities” on April 24, Armenian Remembrance Day.

Armenians and their supporters have pushed for years to get the international community to recognize the 1915 genocide as a matter of justice for the victims.

At a congressional hearing in 2015, Taner Akcam, a professor of Armenian Genocide studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., told lawmakers, “The past has always been the present in the Middle East. Insecurity felt by different groups as a result of events that occurred in history is one of the central problems in the region.”

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion in A.D. 301. But after the Ottoman Empire conquered the region in the 16th century, the government treated Armenians as second-class citizens. For a while they were able to practice Christianity and follow their own cultural practices, but tension rose between them and government leaders who wanted to rid the country of religious minorities.

In 1915, the government empowered special killing squads to carry out brutal techniques against Armenians and other minorities—tactics later copied by Nazi Germany. They included mass starvation, killings, tortures, and rapes.

In 1948, the United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in response to the Holocaust. The agreement created avenues to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide and bring its perpetrators to justice, but many nations have been reluctant to follow through. Turkey, a member of NATO and the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, denies the genocide occurred and claims the deaths resulted from a civil war. Meanwhile, the nation continues to persecute religious minorities.

Turkish authorities arrested American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson (WORLD’s 2018 Daniel of the Year) in 2014 and held him on phony charges for almost two years. They continue to make it difficult for Christians to worship freely by destroying centuries-old churches or even converting them into horse stables, restrooms, and discos. Today, Christians in Turkey make up less than 1 percent of the population.

“While we’re happy with some of the good measures the [Trump] administration has taken toward Middle Eastern Christians’ religious liberty in this region, this recognition of genocide is a vital test: Are we going to put our rhetoric into action here?” asked Steven Howard, the national outreach director with In Defense of Christians.

Aram Hamparian, executive director for the Armenian National Committee of America, said he thinks the Turkish government’s recent actions motivated Congress to finally acknowledge the genocide. In addition to its detaining of Brunson, Turkey has come under heavy criticism from NATO allies for its military incursion in Syria and its purchase of a Russian missile system. A U.S. Senate committee recently approved a measure to impose more sanctions on Turkey, a clear sign of Congress souring on the relationship.

“U.S. recognition is a major step toward ending Turkey’s denial; ending Turkey’s obstruction of justice,” Hamparian said, adding that Armenia, a country of just under 3 million people, will never feel safe next to Turkey: “It’s like living next door to the person who burned down your house; you’re not going to sleep very well.”

He called on Trump to sign the resolution acknowledging the genocide.

“Today, every part of American civil society—all call it the Armenian Genocide, no question marks,” Hamparian said. “There is one veto left—the last veto—that of the president. The irony is that Trump ran for office as someone defending religious liberty and freedom in the Middle East.”

Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite Rep. Jeff Van Drew

Internal debates

Only three Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives broke with their party to oppose at least one article of impeachment in Wednesday night’s historic vote. A slew of left-wing lawmakers from swing districts that had supported Donald Trump voted with the majority to impeach the president despite the political challenges the vote might create for them.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., acknowledged that her vote in favor of impeachment could “mark the end of my short political career.” She said that as a former CIA officer she felt the country’s national security interests were at stake.

“In the national security world that I come from, we are trained to make hard calls on things, even if they are unpopular, if we believe the security of the country is at stake,” she wrote in the Detroit Free Press. “There are some decisions in life that have to be made based on what you know in your bones is right. And this is one of those times.”

Fellow freshman Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., told constituents she had not come to Congress to impeach the president. Yet with a heavy heart, she decided the evidence showed Trump “poses a clear and present danger to the very foundations of our democracy.”

Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Jeff Van Drew, D-N.J., came to the opposite conclusion and voted with Republicans against the articles of impeachment. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, voted for the first article but against the second on obstruction of Congress. He said Congress had not exhausted its efforts to subpoena information from the Trump administration, and there were legitimate questions about executive privilege that needed addressing.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who is running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, voted “present,” stating that although she concluded the president was guilty, she believed the process was politically motivated.

Van Drew said he will switch political parties to become a Republican in the face of a likely Democratic primary challenge, but Peterson indicated he has no such plans to change his affiliation. —Anne K. Walters

Tax-free parking

A government funding bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday would repeal a controversial measure that taxed churches and other nonprofit organizations for certain employee benefits such as reserved parking.

The original provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 drew the ire of churches as a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Other nonprofit groups worried about the new tax burden and the diversion of resources away from charitable purposes.

Defenders of the measure saw it as a way to create fairness in the labor market after the 2017 Republican tax overhaul removed tax exemptions for employee transportation benefits.

“Churches must not be seen as untapped sources of government revenue,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “I am grateful for the House leadership and the members who worked hard for this tax to be repealed and look forward to this burden being lifted from non-profits around the country.”

The repeal still needs approval from the Senate and the president before a Friday deadline.

“We have cautious optimism wrapped in vigilance (and many prayers!) that the parking tax will finally be repealed and provide the relief needed by churches and non-profits for the last two years,” said the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which had organized a petition of more than 2,700 organizations in opposition of the tax. —A.K.W.

Leaving Congress

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., one of President Donald Trump’s staunchest allies in Congress, announced Thursday he will not seek reelection after his term ends in January 2021.

“After prayerful consideration and discussion with family, today I’m announcing that my time serving western North Carolina in Congress will come to a close at the end of this term,” he said. Meadows was first elected to the House in 2012. A co-founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, he helped push out former House Speaker John Boehner, a moderate Republican from Ohio.

Meadows hinted that his involvement in Washington politics was far from over. “My work with President Trump and his administration is only beginning,” he said. —H.P.

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Harvest Prude

Harvest is a political reporter for WORLD's Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @HarvestPrude.

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