Washington D.C., By Irene Zoupaniotis
Thirty four key Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 10 key U.S. Senators participated and briefed the delegates of the 25th Annual Cyprus and Hellenic Leadership Conference. Most of the members of Congress expressed strong support to the communities concerns on Cyprus, the Macedonian issue and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The list of the speakers included some of the most powerful congressional figures, suck as, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) who is the Senate Assistant Majority Leader, House Foreign Affairs Committeeʼs Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA), Eurpean Subcommitteeʼs Chairman Congressman Robert Wexler, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chair, European Affairs Subcommittee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and others.
Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA) who recently returned from a trip in Cyprus said he was there for less than 24 hours, but he had an amazing series of meetings. They had a chance to spend time with President Christofias and had a great conversation. He met with the Foreign Minister and the Ambassador, and also met with the negotiators on the other side of the Green Line. He came away from those meetings, one, much more knowledgeable about what was going on in Cyprus and with one essential fact. That the inability to solve the issue right now is not because of conflicts within Cyprus. It is for one fundamental reason, the Turkish troops in Cyprus and the Turkish government imposes a constraint on Cypriots who have fundamentally accepted the notion that there is one sovereign Cyprus, that there are processes to give everyone participation in that democratic sovereign government and a constraint on settling this issue comes from the presence of those Turkish troops on Cyprus.
Berman described Turkey as the key to the Cyprus problem and raised some points on how to deal with Ankara.
“In my dealings with Turkey the key question is, what is in their national interest that they retain troops in Cyprus.”
He also stressed that the trip made him to change his opinion of the Kofi Annan Plan. He generally could not understand if the plan was that unreasonable, but then he learned many of the underpinnings of that plan and the defects of the whole proposal.
Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (D-MA) has signed on with John Sarbanes on a letter that laid out the issues that they would like to move forward on. Since she is on the Armed Services Committee they can work on Turkey and getting the troops out of Cyprus.
Honoree: Congressman Ed Royce (R-CA) : Has admired the tenacity of Cypriots and Greeks in general. For 400 years under Ottoman Empire they were able to preserve their ideals, their culture, their language and religion even under those circumstances. He witnessed the great frustration of Cypriots who have been divided by that barbed wire who quite frankly want nothing more than to be united. The one impediment to the talks between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots is the people that are brought to Anatolia to settle in northern-occupied Cyprus. There have been millions of crossings. There is no excuse whatsoever, and that is why he is proud to lend his efforts. He is a co-sponsor to the efforts of pressuring Turkey on this.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) : Last week Lehtinen joined Congressman Bilirakis in submitting an amendment to the state department authorization bill that took place Wednesday afternoon on three very important issues. First, to address the problems conflicting the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the form of the Turkish governmentʼs imposition of such harsh regulations against the church. Itʼs very existence is threatened. It called upon the Turkish government to acknowledge the international status of the Patriarchate and the fundamental right to own property, to train its clergy, and to elect its spiritual leader according to its own criteria not those imposed by the Turkish government. It also authorized aid to Cyprus that US funds should be used to support reunification efforts in that country.
Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) : Mr. Berman approached us a few months ago and asked what was important to them and put in some language that was favorable to our Patriarchate. However, Congressman Bilirakis did say that he was disappointed.
Honoree: Congressman Russ Carnahan (D-MO) : He took his first trip to Cyprus and had a chance to tour the area, the occupied area as well. Toured the area of the UN facility of missing persons and saw encouraging signs with the co-operation between both sides. He sees progress and thinks the Obama administration is going to make bold steps.
Congressman Donald Payne (D-NJ) : Hopefully with the new administration we will see some changes in the status quo and the situation in Cyprus finally should be settled. He discussed driving up to Andyʼs home and seeing the home that is now occupied by Turks. Being brought up as a minority in an area that is difficult to move forward, he has a feeling for injustice wherever it is. He feels as close to ending the illegal occupation of Cyprus just as Cypriots feel. He also reintroduced his bill regarding the Parthenon marbles and that they should be returned from Great Britain.
Congressman Gene Green (D-TX) : He discusses his first time in Cyprus due to a layover on his way to Islamabad and visiting the Green Line. He saw the lack of growth and devastation on the northern side in comparison to the development of the southern side. Realizes that the decisions should be made in Cyprus but they are not and they have to deal with Turkey.
Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY) : This is an issue about pawns, and the people of Cyprus are really pawns in an international game. Turkey is really important to the US, from a military, geopolitical, etc… point of view, but that does not make them right. Just because they have a large army does not give them moral standing to be in a country that is not theirs. There will be a reunification of Cyprus, it will be a bi-zonal, bi-communal place, but that cannot really take place with the threat of guns and a military presence. People have a right to live and rule themselves without any threat, or fear, or intimidation.
Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-NV) : One, the Presidentʼs announcement that its time for Turkey to be admitted into the EU. She states that she was astounded because first, Turkey is not a European country and doesnʼt see the reason that they should even be admitted, and second we cannot contemplate this before we ensure the Ecumenical Patriarch is not discriminated against and his property isnʼt confiscated by the Turks. Until we solve the Cyprus issue there should be no talk of Turkey going into the EU.
Concerning FYROM and the name issue she believes they should not be using the name because we know who the name really belongs to.
Congresswoman Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) made known that he attended the conference to state publicly that she supports the Greek issues.
Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) : Ever since he was a very young kid he became infatuated with Greece and its history and all of the examples that Greece has set for other countries around the world. He has had the opportunity to visit Cyprus and the situation in Cyprus is something that is very important to him and it is a situation that must be straightened out.
Congressman John Adler (D-NJ) : He is fighting toward a popular resolution for the right of the return of property. He also calls upon the US to put pressure on Turkey to move aside in the issue of Cyprus.
Congressman Mike McMahon (D-NY) : He states the commitment Congressman Berman has given in pushing our agenda to the forefront and his commitment in seeing the end of Turkish occupation in Cyprus. He sees a settlement can only be reached for the Cypriots by the Cypriots. On Wednesday, Congressman McMahon and Congressman Bilirakis expressed their desire to see more work on the unified Cyprus by the Committee. He will address Foreign Assistance bill in the fall and the aid money that goes to Cyprus will be employed in such a way to build institutions and utilities that can be easily integrated when this reunification becomes a reality. He will be meeting in a few weeks with Greek Foreign Minister Bakoyiannis.
Congresswoman Diane Watson (D-CA) : She gives her support in the reunification goal. She is also working on a project called “Go Out On Our Films” bringing movies to countries such as South Africa, and will be placing Greek-themed films in the library as well.
Congressman Joe Crowley (D-NY) : He stands with all Cypriots who stand for a united Cyprus.
Congressman Steve Rothman (D-NJ) : He has addressed the division of Cyprus, the Visa Waiver Program, religious freedom issues, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the confiscated properties.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) : The presence of Greek Americans in Washington is what keeps the issues alive. There are 138 members in the Hellenic Caucus which is more than any other caucus in Congress. She urges Turkey to respect the rights of the Ecumenical Patriarch. They are introducing the FYROM bill that states Macedonia is Greek. Last year she had 123 co-sponsors for the bill. She also has a piece of legislation for Cypriot property rights in order to stop the selling of land that was owned by Cypriots prior to the invasion. Also, she addressed the oil in southern Cyprus and that it does not belong to Turkey.
Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) : He states that he worked to make sure when the President was to visit Turkey he would also mean with the Patriarch.
Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) : Last year he was enthused by the talks between Talat and Christofias, but now it seems with the nationalist party in the occupied territory they seem to be going back. He mentions the ECJ decision of not expatriating territory that is the property of Cypriot refugees. He wants to reintroduce the bill for redress or grievances for property. They had a letter sent to the New York Times that had an advertisement for a piece of property for sale in northern Cyprus.
Congressman Paul Hodes offered strong support for Cypriot reunification.
Congresswoman Dina Titus (D-NV) : Believes the problems with Turkey have gone on for too long. She is a co-sponsor for all the bills previously mentioned.
Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ): When he saw the Turkish flag in the mountain in Cyprus he saw that as insensitive, provocative and unnecessary. He asked Secretary Clinton when she came before the committee what is to be done about the Turkish troops in Cyprus.
Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) : He states that there is a strong combination of tiredness, because we feel that we keep pushing and donʼt see any progress we want to see and on the other hand there is still a determination. The US should do the right thing for geostrategic reasons and that includes having strong relations with a unified Cyprus.
Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) offered only off the record remarks. According to one of the participants, he raised continuously that Turkey should not have so many troops on the island because it is illogical and an irrational expenditure.
He seemed concerned about the result of the so called elections in the north, pointing out that they have shown that it is self-evident and essential that America presses upon the Turkish government to continue the talks.
According to the same sources in the case of a negative approach by Turkey, he will hold Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul accountable for what happens to negotiations and additionally he will not support any roadblocks placed by them.
Wexler also informed the gathering about a difficult meeting he held in February in Ankara, with the new Foreign Minister of Turkey, during the crisis between Israel and Turkey.
Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) : He is pleased to see Turkey and Armenia are talking because that is a good sign. He states Cypriot division is like the Berlin Wall of our time “and as Regan said to Gorbachev ʽWe must tear this wall downʼ ”.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-PA) stated that the good bilateral relations will only get stronger in an Obama administration as seen with the securing of sea lanes. She is confident the Republic of Cyprus will get strong support from the US because their friendship is valuable.
Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) : He has been supporting Greek and Cypriot causes for the past 16 years. His constituent base has very few Greeks, thus he is not supporting us based on politics but rather principle. Strong and unwavering relationships with Greece and Cyprus are in American interest as well as American national security interest. He also reminds us of the significant role the Diaspora plays, for example when it stopped a resolution of FYROM.
Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) mentioned the assistance he offered to Greece and Cyprus through the Appropriations Committee.
Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) spoke in length about the trip he took to Greece, Cyprus and Turkey Alexi Gianoulias and Endy Zemenides and his meetings in Cyprus with President Christofias and Mehmet Ali Talat. He sees that they are moving towards a resolution. He also keeps in touch with Talat and he had called him recently to tell him to stay with negotiations and not to give up and he [Talat] told the State Department that he was encouraged to continue. Senator Durbin also went to Athens and Ankara and met with the Patriarch where they spoke on a number of serious issues such as the closing of the Halki Seminary. He then reached out to Secretary Clinton and began to speak to her about the seminary, which she already knew about, and she was convinced into revisiting her old issue that she was very much involved in.
Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) : He states that the destruction of cultural material in Cyprus is just wrong and that the occupation by Turkish troops violates principles of OSCE and others, therefore he is focused on using these oppositions to end Turkish occupation in Cyprus. He states they will work together to make sure that Cyprus has the protection it needs.
Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) : He is advocating on behalf of the Patriarch. In regards to FYROM, he states that there may be no answer but he is empathetic to our cause.