ATTITUDE OF THE ARMENIAN PATRIARCHATE IN INSTANBUL TOWARDS THE ISSUE OF THE FORCIBLY ISLAMIZED ARMENIANS
As a result of the historical developments in the 15th century the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul was established, which, besides spiritual and religious had also had secular and political functions connected with the Armenians living in Turkey. Alongside with the stance and the attitude of the Patriarchate to various issues of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire and then in the Republic of Turkey it would be also interesting to consider the approaches and the policy of Patriarchate as regarded to the issue of the Armenians forcibly Islamized during the Armenian Genocide.
After the World War I the defeated Ottoman Empire faced the issue of the Armenians who was retained and forcibly Islamized during the Genocide put forward by the Entente. Particularly, they demanded to return Armenian women and children captured by the Muslim families to their families and if they had no families to the Armenian or Christian organizations. In this mission a serious role was allotted to the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul which turned into a leader in the saving of the splinters of the Armenincy. Particularly, the commissions were created which studied and gathered information about the location and status of the Armenians who were retained and forcibly converted after which they started the activity directed to the saving of those splinters, i.e. the process of freeing them from Muslim families.
The works directed to the freeing of the Armenian orphans and women activated in 1919, during the second enthronement of Patriarch of Istanbul Zaven Ter-Eghiayan (1913-1916, 1918-1922). The Ottoman government of that day, represented by the Ministry of Home Affairs, on February 5, 1919 sent an order to the provinces which said: “To pass the Armenian women and children who are in Muslim families to the commission consisting of the Armenians”1. This decree which is kept today in the Ottoman archive of the prime-minister of Turkey was not a manifestation of a good will but a result of a serious pressure and constraint. It is remarkable that while speaking about this decree many Turkish scholars criticize it and consider it an evidence of the weakness of the Turkish government of that time.
Of course the process of saving the splinters of the Armeniancy faced a number of obstacles, among which were, e.g. the fact that many Armenian women had children from those who had retained them and they were faced with a difficult choice either to leave their children and to return to their roots or stay in captivity and suffer till the end of their lives. It should be mentioned that over that period a number of Armenian women and particularly minor girls preferred to stay with their abductors. On this ground some Turkish sources state that those women had chose their men on their own accord and the commission forcedly returned them to their Armenian roots. The Turkish party has also put into circulation recently the absurd idea that while reclaiming the Armenians retained by the Muslims the Armenian Patriarchate had also gathered Muslim Turkish, Kurdish children and presented them as Armenians in order to increase the number of the Armenians2. Turkish scholars call this a process of forced Christianization. Of course, it is not excluded that some inaccuracies may be revealed but in the most of the cases children who were presented as Turkish of Curd Muslims were Armenian children who were torn from their roots and educated in the ardent Muslim spirit and who had almost lost the memories and the consciousness of their Armenian decent.
However, in the issue of the four-years activity (1919-1922) of the commission thousands of Armenians were reclaimed from Muslim families and returned to their roots and religion. Summing up their work at the beginning of 1921 the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul prepared the report which English version was sent to the US State Department. According to that report in 1921 there were still 63000 Armenian orphans in Muslim families which representation in the provinces was as follows:
1. Ter-Zor district
a) Nearby Zibar, Egabar and Varaqora ashirets – 500
b) Nearby Zibur ashiret – 600
c) Nearby Semmar ashiret – 700
d) Nearby Aneza ashiret – 2000
2. Nearby Cecen ashirets of Resulain districts – 2000
3. Istanbul and its suburbs – 6000
4. Izmir, Bursa, Balikesir – 2000
5. Inebolu – 1500
6. Eskisehir and Konia - 3000
7. Kastamonu - 500
8. Trebizond - 2500
9. Sebastia - 3500
10. Kesaria - 3500
11. Erzurum – 3000
12. Diarbekir and Mardin - 25000
13. Kharberd - 3000
14. Bitlis and Van - 50003.
The League of Nations, by the decision of which the special investigating board was created, also dealt with the issues of the Armenian women and children Islamized during the Genocide. In the final report various difficulties connected with the reclaiming of the Armenian women and children from the Muslim families are brought and explanations are given: “An entire people was an accomplice to this crime”. A report stating that 90.819 Armenian children and women were reclaimed from Muslim homes while almost as many had still been forcibly retained4. If we compare those facts we see that the number of the Armenian orphans presented by the Armenian Patriarchate – 63000 – at some extent complies with the data of the League of Nations and becomes even more convincing.
And even later the issue of the Armenians who stayed in provinces and were at the different levels of assimilation had been the centre of the attention of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul. Particularly, the works directed to the study of the issue of the converted Armenians and returning them to their roots were carried out by Patriarch Garegin Khachaturian (1951-1990). Over that period Kurdish speaking Armenian children were brought to Armenian educational institutions in Istanbul from provinces. Patriarch Shnorhq Galstyan who accessed to the throne in 1961 (1961-1990) not only actively dealt with the issue of the assimilated Armenians but also carried out scientific study of the matter and gave the group division of the Armenians living in Turkey and that work helps those who deals with that theme even today. Thus, in 1980 in Jerusalem while speaking about the Armenians living in provinces in Turkey the patriarch divided them into four groups:
c. Armenians who were Islamized of their own will or against their will but who realized their being Armenian and who after settling in Istanbul through the court change word “Islam” in their passports to “Ermeni”.
d. The Armenians from provinces who regardless of all the obvious or non-obvious difficulties stayed Armenians and today most of the Armeniancy in Istanbul consists of them»5:
It is remarkable that during the enthronement of Shnorhq patriarch and mostly due to his efforts the well-known Ermeni Varto ashiret moved to Istanbul and began communicate with the Armenian community.
The present patriarch of Istanbul Mesrop Mutafian has also touched upon the issue of the Islamized Armenians for many times and, for example, on May 30, 2007 stated during the meeting: “One should not also forget that during the deportation many Armenians, in order to avoid it, converted to Islam. We also regard them as our people”6.
Recently the archbishop Aram Ateshyan, the representative of the Patriarchate in Istanbul and one of the main candidates at the election of the joint-ruler patriarch, has also turned to the issue of the Islamized Armenians in Turkey. In his interview to authoritative Turkish “Hyurriyet” newspaper archbishop Aram said that there were cases of Islamization in the republican period too, and his family, a part of which converted in Islam in 1950s and today lives in Diyarbekir as Muslims, did not avoid it as well. Answering the question of the correspondent about the attitude of Patriarchate towards the ethnic Armenians who want to return to their Christianity and their roots Atehsian said: “Any citizen of Turkey can turn to the passport office and change his religion. But it does not mean that the man who adopted Christianity is perceived by us as an Armenian. This asks time. There is a six-month course during which we look at how loyal he is to his roots and if we see persistence in his desire to return to his roots then the patriarchate gives an appropriate document which he can take to the passport office and change his religion converting to Christianity. Then that man is christened and becomes a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church”7.
It is well known that soon the elections of the joint-ruler patriarch of Istanbul will take place and we can say that all the candidates (Bishop Sepuh Chuljian, Archbishop Garegin Bekchian, and Archbishop Aram Ateshian) one way or another touched over the issues and problems assimilated Armenians.
Thus we can see that the issue of the forcibly converted Armenians has been in the spotlight of the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul and since the beginning of the 20th century all the Armenian patriarchs, willing or not, has been facing the problems of the converted Armenians. Having no case to act in this direction amid the Turkish realities, they, however, made definite steps. At the same time we hope that their policy will not change and will become even more active.
1Atnur İ., Türkiye’de Ermeni Kadınları ve Çocukları Meselesi (1915-1923), Ankara, 2005, s. 189.
2Başyurt E., Ermeni Evlatlıklar, İstanbul, 2006, s. 44-45.
3Özdemir H., Çiçek K., Turan Ö., Çalık R., Halaçoğlu Y., Ermeniler. Sürgün ve Göc, Ankara, 2004, s. 120, 122-123.
5«Ալիք», Թեհրան, 18.12.1980, նույնը տե՛ս նաև Խանլարեան Կ., Հայ բնակչութեան էթնոկրօնական վերակերպումները Թուրքիայի Հանրապետութիւնում (1923-2005), Անթիլիաս, 2009, էջ 27:
6Սասունեան Յ., Ի՞նչն է Մեսրոպ պատրիարքին քաղաքական յայտարարութեանց դրդապատճառը, «Ազդակ», Բեյրութ, 08.06.2007, նույնը տե՛ս նաև Վարդանյան Ս., Կրոնափոխ համշենահայերի բարբառը, բանահյուսությունը և երգարվեստը, Երևան, 2009, էջ 32:
7Konuralp O., Türkiye Ermenilerinin Gizli Kalmış Travması, Hürriyet, 22.11.2009.
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- THE ISSUE OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE AND MODERN TENDENCIES OF TURKEY’S POLICY[14.05.2012]
- THE STUDY OF THE ISSUE OF ISLAMIZED ARMENIANS IN TURKEY: PROBLEMS AND PROSPECTS[12.04.2012]
- THE ISSUE OF THE ARMENIAN GENOCIDE IN THE TURKISH PARLIAMENT [08.12.2011]
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