For Turkey's Armenians, painful past is muted

October 30, 2006
Source: The Boston Globe (Massachusetts)

By Anne Barnard

ISTANBUL -- When Mesrob II, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul and All Turkey, meets today with Pope Benedict XVI, the one topic he says he definitely won't bring up is the one that most intensely interests his people around the world: the Armenian genocide.

Getting Turkey and the rest of the world to acknowledge the slaughter of more than 1 million Armenians in the early 20th century, many by troops of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, is a cherished goal of the Armenian diaspora. The visit from the spiritual leader of 1 billion Roman Catholics might seem the perfect opportunity not only to draw attention to the problems of the tiny Christian minority here, but also to ask the pontiff to press Turkey for an apology.

But for about 68,000 Turkish citizens of Armenian descent, who -- along with 20,000 to 30,000 people from neighboring Armenia who have migrated here in search of jobs -- make up by far the largest Christian community in Turkey, the situation is much more complicated, even dangerous.

Armenians here must balance a deep need to preserve the memory of the killings, known in Armenian as metz yeghern, or "the big calamity," with safeguarding the small community that remains, which to them means avoiding conflict with the Muslim Turk majority or the nationalist government. Turkish citizens who mention the killings -- including Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish author who won the Nobel Prize this year -- have been charged with the crime of "insulting Turkishness," and risk fines, jail sentences, and even death threats.

The Armenian community is treading cautiously around the pope's visit. Leaders are seeking his support on general issues of religious expression; during his first two days Benedict has already stressed the importance of religious freedom. But they are being careful not to embrace too closely a pontiff widely seen by Muslims as having insulted Islam -- and they are avoiding any public reference to the genocide.

Many Armenians here say they have chosen to leave the past buried -- or partly buried -- in order to press for more immediate benefits. They want to persuade the government to ease onerous restrictions, such as laws that ban Christians from bequeathing land to the church or running independent seminaries to train priests. And they want to live in peace with the rest of this country of nearly 80 million people, about 99 percent of whom are Muslim and overwhelmingly ethnically Turkish.

Mesrob, the leader of the Armenian Orthodox Church here, is a case in point. Speaking the confident English he perfected at Memphis State University, he chose his words carefully in an hourlong conversation with three foreign reporters.

Asked whether he would discuss the genocide with the pope, he said he never brings up "local issues" with visiting dignitaries. Asked whether he could state for the record that a genocide took place, he fixed a reporter with a friendly gaze and was silent for a long moment. Then he said, "I acknowledge that people were killed."

But Mesrob, 50, spoke more readily when asked what had happened to his own family at the time. His grandfather's six brothers were all deported from the town of Izmit, during a time when many Armenians were shipped off to the Syrian desert. His grandfather, who escaped to Istanbul and became a baker, never heard from them again. He assumed most of them died.

Mesrob's parents and grandparents never told him the details. "They never talked about it. They didn't want us to be at odds with our Muslim neighbors," he said.

"There is no family that didn't share this situation," said Navart Beren, 51, an administrator at St. Mary's Church, across the street from the patriarch's residence on a winding street near the Sea of Marmara, where she was attending Mass last Sunday. Her parents were close-mouthed, too, she said: "They didn't want us to carry revenge in our hearts."

"All that is in the past," said her friend Margarit Nalbantkazar, 52. "But this did happen: My husband's father was 8 or 9 years old. He saw them take his father by hitting him on the back of the head with a gun.... They never saw him again."

Murat Belge, a Turkish academic who runs the publishing house that prints Pamuk's books, explained why Armenians inside Turkey walk such a fine line between forgetting and accusing.

Told of the patriarch's comments, Belge said: "If he had said there was an Armenian genocide, it's very likely that he would be assassinated by some fascists, the patriarchate would be burned, and Armenians leading their daily lives would be shot by unknown people."

Turkey has always insisted that the deaths, most of them in 1915, were part of a war in which a beleaguered Ottoman Empire was facing Armenian rebels allied with its enemies, which included the United States, Britain, and Russia.

But most historians agree that Armenians were systematically killed and driven out. The subject is extremely sensitive in Turkey because many of the military leaders of the dying Ottoman Empire went on to found the secular Turkish republic in 1923.

Also in the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians were forced to leave Turkey as smaller numbers of Muslims were forced out of Greece, under the agreement that established the Greek and Turkish borders. Today, Christians make up less than 1 percent of the population.

US policy on the Armenian deaths is to respect the position of Turkey, an important NATO ally, though the 1.2 million Armenians in America fiercely lobby Congress to recognize the genocide.

Pope John Paul II called the events a genocide in a 2000 document, and in 2001 visited a memorial to the victims in Yerevan, Armenia's capital. In a speech there, he avoided the term genocide but adopted the Armenian phrase "big calamity."
The Vatican has given no indication of whether Benedict will mention the issue.

Mesrob said he hoped the pope's visit would improve interfaith relations, but whether it does "depends on what kind of language he's going to use," he added with a chuckle. He said the pope's September remarks, quoting a Byzantine ruler's criticism of Islam as violent, "jeopardized" Christian minorities.

A metal detector and security checkpoint stand outside Mesrob's ornate residence, and security will be extra tight during the pope's visit, he said.

Mesrob said Turks do not bear all responsibility for the killings of Armenians but have "the most important responsibility" because "they were ruling the country." He said many people believe "ethnic cleansing" was carried out to "remove Christians from public life."

When asked if Armenians in Turkey have a ceremony or memorial site to commemorate the killings, he said that they do not, but that people remember the date April 24, 1915, when Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul were rounded up and deported, as a kind of "beheading of the community."

Mesrob dismissed recent allegations that he forbids church officials to speak of the killings. "It's not a question of silence," he said. "How can you make friends with someone if you confront them?"

Instead, he recommends cultural exchanges between Armenia and Turkey to pave the way for an honest discussion of the events, he said. In the meantime, he said, when foreign governments raise the issue, ethnic Armenians in Turkey get nervous.

Aida Barsegian, 56, a house cleaner who moved here from Armenia, said it didn't help when France passed a law last month declaring it a crime to deny the genocide. "If they care so much, they should open the borders of France and let us find work there," she said after lighting candles at the church. "Here they give me work."