[lg policy] Turkey: Armenian Church Catalyst for Change in Kurdish Region

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Dec 19 18:25:48 UTC 2013

Forwarded from Eurasianet.org

Turkey: Armenian Church Catalyst for Change in Kurdish Region
 December 17, 2013 - 11:55am, by Dorian
  [image: Surp Giragos, after reopening two years ago, has become a focal
point for ethnic Armenians rediscovering their identity. (Photo: Dorian
 [image: Visitors to Surp Giragos are not only ethnic Armenians, some Kurds
visit to express their regret at the role their ancestors played in
destruction of the Armenian community in 1915. (Photo: Dorian
   Surp Giragos, after reopening two years ago, has become a focal point
for ethnic Armenians rediscovering their identity in southeast Turkey.
(Photo: Dorian Jones)

A recently restored 13th-century church has become a focal point for ethnic
Armenians seeking to rediscover their cultural identity in Turkey’s
predominantly Kurdish southeast.

St. Giragos Armenian Apostolic church is located in the back streets of the
Sur quarter in Diyarbakır, one of southeastern Turkey’s largest cities. It
was derelict and abandoned until restored to its full splendor two years
ago, and now serves as a testament to the once large and wealthy ethnic
Armenian community that for centuries lived in the city.

“It means everything to me. It is our history, it is our culture and it is
our legacy,” proudly declared 60-year-old church caretaker Armen Demircian.
“It’s the gift of our ancestors to us. As an Armenian, I can see myself

Demircian’s story is typical for the region’s ethnic Armenians. His
grandparents and great-uncles died amid Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 slaughter and
expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians. Officials in
Armenia are pushing for international
the events as genocide; the Turkish
government <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67868>links the events to World
War I, rather than to a genocide policy.

During the bloodshed, a family friend hid Demircian’s father, then five, in
a barn. A local Kurdish family brought the boy up; he later married one of
the daughters.

Demircian describes his own upbringing as entirely Kurdish. “I was raised
as a Kurd, with Kurdish songs, Kurdish traditions,” he recounted. “I knew
nothing of my Armenian identity, until an elder in the town explained to me
that my father was Armenian and I was Armenian. It was a big shock and I
was very confused.”

St. Giragos remained closed for much of the last century, but now is a
symbol of the growing self-awareness and confidence among Turkey’s
remaining handful of ethnic Armenians. “Before, no one would say it,”
Demircian said of the ethnicity of local Armenians, most of whom converted
to Islam. “Now, since the church re-opened, many people come here and say;
‘My grandmother or my grandfather was Armenian.’”

City government worker Melike Günal is among them. “My closest family
always knew about our Armenian identity, but it was something kept within
the family,” she recalled after lighting a candle and saying a prayer.

Melike’s father died during the Turkish government’s war against Kurdish
militant separatists <http://www.eurasianet.org/node/66751>in the 1990s; a
brutal campaign that also took the lives of many civilians.

The Kurds’ struggle for greater minority rights gave an opportunity to
ethnic Armenians. “It all came out with the Kurdish struggle for their
identity; that opened the door to us,” said one 25-year-old schoolteacher,
who, fearing potential retribution because she is a state employee,
declined to give her name. “Kurds can’t deny the same rights for us.”

The Turkish government recently began tentatively expanding cultural
rights<http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67639>for ethnic Kurds. It also
has introduced reforms to ease restrictions on
Christian minorities, including returning properties seized by the state,
and restoring individual churches, such as nearby Van’s Armenian Holy Cross
Church, which are allowed occasional religious

The teacher, however, claims greater freedom to express her identity also
creates new problems. “When we say we are Armenians, we are not actually
Armenians because we don't know anything about the Armenian language, and
Armenians single us out” as outsiders, she asserted.

“Are we Kurds? We live as Kurds, but Kurds discriminate against us,” the
teacher said. “When we show genuine interest in Islam, we cannot fully
integrate and we are discriminated by them as well. Whatever we do, we are
always discriminated against.”

The district city council, controlled by the pro-Kurdish Peace and
Democracy Party, believes it has a role to play in correcting that trend.
It donated 1 million Turkish lira (about $490,557) to finance the
re-opening of St. Giragos, a project overseen by the local Surp Giragos
Foundation, and has extended similar support to a local Assyrian church and
to a synagogue.

“Throughout the years, the Turkish state wanted to turn this region, this
area, into a single identity, by not only suppressing Kurds, but all these
communities, all these religions and languages,” declared Mayor Abdullah
Demirbaş, whose municipality has installed city signs in Turkish, Kurdish
and Armenian, as well as published literature in Armenian and provided
language courses. “We want to show this diversity can live together.”

For Kurds who also have suffered from repression and restrictions on
expressions of their cultural identity, what happened to ethnic Armenians
almost a century ago raises uncomfortable questions. Kurds carried out many
of the massacres of ethnic Armenians, including in Diyarbakır.

At an opening ceremony this October for a memorial to victims of the
region’s ethnic killings, Mayor Demirbaş, “in the name of our ancestors,”
apologized on behalf of local Kurds for the killings. St. Giragos caretaker
Demircian claims that Kurds now come to the church and apologize to him as
well for the bloodshed.

Viewing a small photo exhibit that shows members of Diyarbakır’s former
ethnic Armenian community drinking wine and smoking water pipes, a group of
teenage boys feels the same. One, Baran Doğan, acknowledges his awareness
of “what happened to the Armenians by Kurds under the order of the state.”
A close friend’s recent avowal of his Armenian heritage has brought it
closer still, he continued.

“When I come to this church with him, I feel it as a small apology although
it never can compensate for what they’ve been through,” Doğan said.


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