By Todd Daniels
04/24/2015 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Today marks 100 years since what is generally recognized as the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. On April 24, 1915, approximately 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders in Istanbul were arrested and subsequently executed. At the same time, in the eastern city of Van, fighting was breaking out between the Turkish Governor and the Armenian population that would lead to the deaths of some 55,000 Armenians over the coming months.
Today in Turkey, and in hundreds of events around the world, many will stop to remember these events and the millions of lives that were taken. It was not just the Armenians who were massacred in Medz Yeghern (The Great Crime), but also Greek Orthodox and the Assyrian and Syriac Christian communities in what is known as Shato d’Sayfo (Year of the Sword). Over the span of about three years, nearly 3 million Christians from the lands of the Ottoman Empire were killed (500,000 Greek, 750,000 Assyrian, and 1.5 million Armenians).
While the historical record regarding the fact of these killings is well documented, there remains a debate about whether it was a campaign to systematically exterminate an entire community. The government of the modern-day Republic of Turkey, the successors of the Ottoman Empire, maintains its rejection that a genocide took place, while acknowledging the lives of Ottoman Armenians and other minorities that were lost.
In the past two years, there has been progress made by the Turkish government in acknowledging the incidents and expressing statements of sorrow and respect towards the Armenian community. Perhaps even more encouraging have been the efforts taken by Turkish and Kurdish religious leaders to express repentance and pursue reconciliation with Armenians.
Remembrance and Rejection
In a message sent by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Religious Ceremony held on April 24 by the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, he said, “Let me reiterate that we are cognizant of the sorrowful events experienced in the past by the Armenian community and that I sincerely share your pain.”
In a similar statement, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, “It is with these feelings and thoughts that we once more commemorate with deep respect the Ottoman Armenians who lost their lives during the relocation in 1915 and we share in the grief of their children and grandchildren.”
While both statements express genuine sympathy for the lives that were lost, they maintain the rejection of a genocide of the Christian minorities in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.
Acceptance of that term remains loaded politically and, despite heavy pressure to label the acts a genocide, it is something that President Barack Obama avoided in his statement that strongly condemned the atrocities that were committed.
“Beginning in 1915, the Armenian people of the Ottoman Empire were deported, massacred and marched to their deaths,” Obama’s statement said. “Their culture and heritage in their ancient homeland were erased. Amid horrific violence that saw suffering on all sides, one and a half million Armenians perished.”
The statement goes on to acknowledge the value of admitting to painful and dark periods of the past. “Peoples and nations grow stronger, and build a foundation for a more just and tolerant future, by acknowledging and reckoning with painful elements of the past,” he continued.
This is slowly happening within Turkey and a number of Turkish and Kurdish religious leaders have been at the forefront of pursuing reconciliation in a way that has been both painful and liberating.
Steps of Reconciliation
On April 11, 2015 more than 20 Turkish citizens – from both Turkish and Kurdish ethnic backgrounds – gathered with Armenian leaders around the eternal flame of the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, Armenia.
“We entreat you, if you can forgive us and our ancestors who committed this crime. Forgive and pray for revival in Turkey and for the Turkish people,” a Turkish pastor said to the gathering at the memorial.
“You wrote history here in Yerevan today,” one Armenian pastor declared, according to a World Watch Monitor report. It was the first time, he thought, that prayers in Turkish and Armenian had ever been voiced together before the somber memorial.
The meeting in Yerevan came just one month after more than 100 Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian pastors met in Istanbul for a reconciliation meeting.
“The event was amazing and something that has never happened before,” one of the Armenian pastors said. “It is something that both our nations need. Their request to forgive and our forgiveness will bring revival in Turkey. It is very difficult to write down my deep feelings connected to our visit but I can surely say that it will have big influence in the future of the two nations.”
Another Armenian pastor who spoke very openly about the continuing legacy shared, “No matter how much we love, pray and follow the commandments of God, anyway, there is a black part, a sorrow in each Armenian`s heart and these feelings are transmitted from generation to generation. That is the reality of the Genocide, and the fact that Turkey still denies the existence of this historical fact.” But, he continued, “When I think about our visit to Turkey, firstly, I remember a Turkish boy, who said the following sentence with his broken English, ‘I am sorry that my grandfathers have killed your grandfathers, excuse me.’ These words were coming out from a sincere heart, and had a great influence on me and made me think about many things.
It was effective to see pastors, who wept with repentance and regret. Armenians need to hear these things, and these words will comfort and heal their hearts and lead to prayer. In every family, parents now will not teach hatred to their children, instead this: they will love and pray for the Turkish nation.
As an Armenian, it was very important for me to see Turks remorseful. I proudly told people that I have met Christian Turks who asked for forgiveness, and asked them to pray for them and their nation.”
The power of these meetings is both painful to reconcile with what took place in the past but it is also stirring a move in the church among both Armenians and Turks. Christians in Turkey now make up just a fraction of 1 percent of the country, down from 20 percent in 1906. There are an estimated 5,000 Turkish or Kurdish Christians from a Muslim background and an additional 100,000 of various Orthodox or other denominations.
“It has been a long time since I and the church have been this excited. God used this [reconciliation meeting] to renew me and personally I really needed to be a part of this,” a Turkish pastor said following the meetings. “My hope is that the reconciliation that has begun here will spread to the general public of the Turkish and Armenian peoples.”
A Kurdish-background pastor shared his particularly moving testimony as, in many cases, the Kurds were the ones who physically carried out many of the massacres.
“Woe, to what have we done! The Ottoman Empire reached its pinnacle in 1915 and even before then with the forced exile of the Armenians and their massacre. Millions of people were forced from their ancient lands. They were forced from their homes, villages and cities to slaughter, to death and to exile. I join in the deep feelings with you all in this great deep tragedy and pain of this 100th year remembrance. To my Armenian brothers, sisters and neighbors that are live in Turkey like the remaining grapes on a vintage vine. Please forgive me.”
Though not universally embraced, and still a deeply painful chapter in the history of both peoples, this reconciling effort is demonstrating the role that faith can play in bringing reconciliation to those who appear to be enemies.
“Never Again” or Happening Today?
While today marks 100 years since the horrific killing of millions of Christians on the basis of their religious and ethnic identity, be that Armenian, Greek, or Assyrian, it should prompt the world to stop and consider a reality that is happening today.
Across Syria and Iraq, the very places where many of these deaths took place 100 years ago, Christians are once again being slaughtered because of their religious and ethnic identity.
This time it is not at the hands of the Ottoman Empire ruled over by the last Caliph of Islam, it is at the hands of a self-declared “Islamic State” and their supposed renewed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The Islamic jihadists from ISIS are slaughtering Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities by the thousands, and it is happening in our time.
As today marks 100 years since the start of one genocide, calls made by world leaders, whether Turkish, European, or American, of “never again” will ring hollow if they continue to allow a modern day genocide to once again happen to these very same people in the very same lands.
For interviews please contact Todd Daniels, Regional Manager for the Middle East: firstname.lastname@example.org