Religious Freedom Coalition, By Andrew Harrod, PhD, April 13, 2015:
Armenian-Canadian writer Raffi Bedrosyan sees Middle Eastern “history repeating itself” in modern Christian suffering in the centennial of the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 genocide of Armenians and other Christian populations. Bedrosyan and other participants of an all-day, March 28 Institute of World Politics (IWP) conference concerning the Ottoman 1915 genocides showed a disturbing continuity of Islamic human rights violations by various actors across a century.
Before over 50 audience members filling IWP’s conference room, Institute of World Politics Professor Marek J. Chodakiewicz indicated the confessional nature of 1915’s slaughter in his presentation on forms of “democide” or governmental mass murder. Descended from “Christendom’s eldest kingdom,” most Armenians in 1915 had a pre-modern understanding of nationality, he said. Despite recent secular legal reforms in the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Armenians still suffered the “scourge of sharia and the whims of the caliphate.”
The East Coast premiere of Turkey, the Legacy of Silence, a French documentary about Turkish citizens uncovering their hidden Armenian heritage, also featured a Christian-Islamic confessional divide. A Turkish man, for example, recounted how authorities in 1915 told one man concerning Armenians that “kill seven and you will go to heaven,” but instead he hid a boy who was later raised a Muslim under the name Abdullah. After another woman’s death, relatives found a Bible in a ceremonial case that usually contains a Quran in Turkish homes. Such individuals, the film noted, were hidden survivors of a brutal attempt to create the fiction of Turkey as a land that has been purely Turkish for millennia.
Concerns for physical survival and social acceptance caused many of these individuals to keep secret their Armenian ancestry even if they knew about it. A woman in the film narrated how Turkish nationalists in the army killed her son on April 24, the day commemorating since 1915 the genocide, 17 days before he completed his military service. Another man whose Armenian heritage became known faced the animosity of his school classmates who read in Turkish textbooks that Armenians betrayed the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Some individuals nonetheless embraced their heritage like the man who accepted baptism and rejected being an “Islamicized Armenian” after learning of his true origins.
Bedrosyan elaborated upon “The Hidden Armenians of Turkey” following the screening and during a subsequent interview. Islamization of Armenians began in 1915 when the Ottoman government initially allowed Armenians to convert to Islam and avoid ultimately deadly deportations. Turkish army orphanages transformed orphan boys of Armenian genocide victims into rabid Muslim Turks while orphan girls became sex slaves or entered forced marriages. One Kurdish chieftain took as his child bride a girl from among the 13 survivors of over 10,500 massacred Armenians from a suburb of southeastern Turkish town Diyarbakir. Bedrosyan expressed amazement at how jihadists in the Islamic State (IS) or Nigeria’s Boko Haram displayed today the same patterns of behavior.
Ottoman efforts to obliterate Armenian culture encompassed property as well as persons. Bedrosyan cited 4,000 churches in Turkey that after 1915 were destroyed or converted to other uses, including one that became a brothel. He noted a destroyed Diyarbakir church used as a government warehouse until its 2011 restoration by private groups as a genocide memorial. Its official opening saw many individuals disclose their Armenian ancestry.
An earlier presentation by stolen property expert Dr. Tania C. Mastrapa elaborated that the Turkish government had closed certain archives as a “national security threat.” Their publication could facilitate property claims by Armenians and others stemming from 1915 calculated in the trillions of dollars. Her co-panelist Kate Nahapetian from the Armenian National Committee of America stated that police today will investigate in certain Turkish villages visitors suspected of searching for lost Armenian property.
Bedrosyan explained that Turkish government actions demonstrated how the Turkish republic throughout its history has assiduously upheld the myth of a homogenous Turkish and Sunni Muslim population. An interviewed Genocide Watch PresidentGregory H. Stanton, whose morning presentation concerned genocide denial, analogized between the Khmer Rouge and Turkish Republic founding father Kemal Ataturk. Like Cambodia’s genocidal Communists who “wanted to start at year zero,” Ataturk’s “utopian vision for a new Turkey” sought cultural erasure of even Christian populations like the Assyrians who predated Turkish presence in Anatolia.
In this environment, Bedrosyan stated, Armenian/Christian affiliations entail discrimination, meaning that many of Turkey’s estimated 2.5 million people with Armenian descent do not recognize or reveal their heritage and remain “Islamicized.” Christians de facto “cannot even become a garbage man” in the public sector, he stated while discussing one public school teacher who broke a taboo by accepting baptism after discovering Armenian roots. Individuals serving in the military sometimes learn of the ineligibility for sensitive positions such as fighter pilots when the government suddenly reveals records of Armenian descent.
Individuals who know of their Armenian heritage therefore often resort to subterfuge in a society where Armenian is a swear word and graffiti like “1915 was a blessed year” vandalizes Istanbul churches. Bedrosyan recounted how one hidden Armenian prayed to Jesus at home while serving as a Muslim imam, while others secretly accepted baptism in Europe before returning to Turkey. Amongst themselves, hidden Armenians often know, and marry their children to, each other.
Steven Oshana, executive director of the Middle East minority advocacy group A Demand for Action, reflected during an interview on the historic continuity of Muslim repression suffered by his Armenian and Assyrian ancestral communities. Assyrians, for example, fled Ottoman genocide to areas of modern Iraq, only to endure the August 1933 Simele massacre by Iraqi troops and another flight to Syria, where Assyrians today are targets of IS. “The genocide just keeps following,” the “methods are the same, the brutality is the same,” stated Oshana.
Oshana and other conference speakers noted how Islam played a role among pious and non-pious alike in conflicts with Christian and other minorities. While IS differed from the Ottomans in publicly claiming credit for atrocities against non-Muslims, he stated that “faith is always a pretext” for political calculations seeking to stimulate violence against non-Christians. Bedrosyan concurred that Ottoman leaders who saw during World War I threats in Armenians and other Christians “were using Islam as an instrument” of mobilization among Muslims like Kurds. This role of Islam was “very, very direct” in the actions of Ottoman leaders, Stanton noted. They cynically urged Muslim authorities such as muftis to call for the killing of Christians considered allied with the Ottoman Empire’s “infidel” enemies.
Institute of World Politics’ Armenian genocide conference instructively brought to light a past that has not passed, but rather remains depressingly relevant today. Time and again Islamic doctrines have repeatedly incited the same patterns of death, destruction, and cultural cleansing against Christians and other non-Muslims. George Santyana’s dictum that “[t]hose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is hardly more relevant than here. Forewarning of these past lessons is necessary for policymakers who want to be forearmed against future dangers.
The International Christian Union, a Christian human rights organization, commissioned this article.