Remembering the Armenian Genocide

NEWS ANALYSIS: Pope Francis marked the 100th anniversary of the 20th century’s ‘first genocide’ with a solemn Mass Sunday at the Vatican.

An Armenian woman kneels beside a dead child near the city of Aleppo, during the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians that began in April 1915.
An Armenian woman kneels beside a dead child near the city of Aleppo, during the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians that began in April 1915. (photo: Wikipedia)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis commemorated the centennial of the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire — “the century’s first genocide” in the Pope’s words — on Sunday with a solemn Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Holy Father also inscribed St. Gregory of Narek, a 10th-century Armenian monk and mystic poet, as the newest doctor of the universal Church.

By honoring martyrs of the Medz Yeghern (Great Crime) together with leaders from the Armenian Apostolic Church and Armenian Catholic Church, the Holy Father highlights reconciliation — even though his actions and words were received negatively by the Turkish government, which recalled its Vatican ambassador in protest after the April 12 commemoration.

“The Holy Father was very involved with the Armenian community in Buenos Aires,” New York-based Apostolic Archbishop Khajag Barsamian told the Register, the day before leaving for Rome. “Armenians across the world appreciate this Mass.”

The tragedy being marked through ecumenical unity, though, is a grotesque example of human brutality that began on April 24, 1915, in Istanbul, when some 200 Armenian elites, ranging from bishops and journalists to poets and politicians, were rounded up, arrested and killed within a few days. Tens of thousands more were liquidated in the following weeks.

In various guises, extermination continued into 1923. Approximately 1.5 million Armenians and 1 million Syriac and Greek Christians were murdered during this period.

A triumvirate of Ottoman leaders (known as the “Three Pashas” from the Young Turks movement), tightly controlling the last vestiges of the 600-year-old empire, ordered the systematic murder, deportation and expropriation of non-Turkish communities.

German historian Michael Hesemann described it last month to Zenit as the “greatest persecution of Christians in history.”

Hesemann based his findings on more than 2,000 pages of unpublished documents he discovered in the Vatican Secret Archives, summarized in the book Armenian Genocide (Völkermord an den Armeniern) published in Germany early this year.


Vatican Spontaneity

Until February, the commemoration on Sunday was scheduled as an Armenian-rite Catholic liturgy celebrated by Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX, the spiritual leader of Armenian Catholics, who is based in Beirut, Lebanon.

Armenian Catholics represent less than 10% of the global Armenian population. More than 90% worship in the Oriental Orthodox tradition, which includes the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian and Malankara Churches.

The Armenian Apostolic Church is considered one of Christianity’s oldest living faith communities, founded by the apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew.

According to Archbishop Barsamian, the Vatican only changed its plan two months ago, based on Pope Francis’ endorsement of a more ecumenical event: “I was in Rome with Cardinal Parolin, Cardinal Sandri and Cardinal Koch as part of the dialogue between the Oriental Orthodox and Catholic Church” sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

“I said, ‘It would be wonderful if [the April 12 Mass] would be a pan-Armenian celebration, with the Holy Father celebrating and all the Armenian Catholicoi [Church leaders] present.’ The Holy Father accepted” this idea.

Subsequently, the event took on international significance, with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan attending, as well.

Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity, in 301 A.D., as a result of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s conversion of the king. Today, the population of Armenia is 3 million, while more than 10 million Armenians live across the globe — mainly as a result of the diaspora following the 1915 genocide campaign.

Pope St. John Paul II had a monumental statue of St. Gregory the Illuminator installed in the last empty niche of St. Peter’s Basilica’s exterior walls in 2005, just months before he died.

In fact, the beloved saint traveled to Armenia in 2001 to celebrate its 1,700th anniversary of Christianity.

“Armenians still talk about Pope John Paul II’s visit,” recalled Archbishop Barsamian, a Turkish-born prelate whose family’s life was directly impacted by the genocide — and whose personal story reflects the beautiful mystery of the Holy Spirit, who inspires leaders in unlikely circumstances.


Imitating Priests

Khajag Barsamian was born in 1951 in Arapkir, a historical town near the Euphrates River founded by an Armenian king in the 11th century when the area was in the Byzantine Empire.

In 1071, the Ottomans conquered Arapkir, but the Armenian community remained and thrived, eventually building a textile industry there. By 1911, Arapkir’s population of 20,000 was split almost evenly between Armenian Christians and Muslims.

With the massacres that began in 1915, virtually the entire Armenian community was murdered or deported. Arapkir’s seven Armenian Apostolic churches, one Catholic church and one Protestant church were looted and destroyed.

The Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God, a major 13th-century church that seated 3,000 people, was burned, then repaired and used as a school. In 1957, town leaders used dynamite to blow it up.

Archbishop Barsamian described how the men of Arapkir were taken away in 1915 and shot, including his grandfather.

“My grandmother was three months pregnant, so my father never met his father.” Some Turkish friends helped Barsamian’s grandmother survive.

Only 35 Armenian families remained in Arapkir when Barsamian was a child.

“Grandmother was very pious. There was no church, but grandmother was praying, teaching us how to pray, reading Bible stories — at home there was church,” recalled the archbishop.

“Mother said, when I was a little boy, I imitated the actions of a priest, although there was no church where I could see this. At age 6, we moved to Istanbul, and I started going to daily celebrations, so it seems there was this calling [from God] from childhood,” he said.

“Thank God, my parents and the Armenian patriarch in Istanbul supported me,” added Archbishop Barsamian, who began religious studies at age 13 and was sent to seminary in Jerusalem at age 16. He was ordained a celibate priest at age 20.

Three years ago, he led a pilgrimage of Armenian-Americans to Armenia and Turkey. It was the first time he had returned to Arapkir: “The Turkish mayor accepted us very warmly, but of the Armenian community, only two Armenian brothers remained,” Archbishop Barsamian said.



What makes the entire subject of the Armenian genocide especially tense today is the Turkish government’s historical refusal to acknowledge it happened — although the “Three Pashas” who ruled the Ottoman Empire during World War I were court-marshaled and condemned to death in 1919-20, even though they had already fled the country.

When Adolph Hitler asked rhetorically, in August 1939, “Who speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?” he used indifference about the Armenian tragedy as a rationale for his own genocidal campaigns.

Turkish officials today challenge the overall number of Armenians killed, saying some 500,000 died in violence related to World War I. They defend forced deportations as a necessary wartime strategy.

Ottoman Turkey had entered World War I in 1914, siding with Germany against the Allies, including Russia; most Armenians lived in the eastern provinces, closer to Russia, and Ottoman leadership suspected the Armenians of supporting the Russian enemy on its border.

To this day, there are legal disagreements over Armenia that reveal a deep antagonism between “Turkishness” and the Armenian experience.

Article 301 of the country’s penal code makes it a crime to insult the Turkish nation. The law has been used to prosecute people who evoked the Armenian genocide, including Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk in 2006, although charges were eventually dropped.

One of the best-known Armenian journalists in Turkey, Hrant Dink, was also prosecuted under Article 301 in 2006. He got a six-month suspended sentence. A year later, Dink was openly assassinated by a Turkish nationalist in Istanbul.

Last month, the mayor of Ankara, Turkey’s capital city, sued a journalist for defamation because the journalist called the mayor “Armenian.”


Positive Signs

Close observers, however, see positive signs: Some Turkish citizens are increasingly willing to share a sense of guilt that crimes against Armenians occurred. To date, it has been those in mainly pro-Kurdish regions in Turkey’s southeastern part who have spoken out.

A few important Armenian churches have been restored — including the 10th-century Holy Cross Cathedral on the island of Akhtamar and the 13th-century St. Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church in Diyarbakir, a church that had been used as a depot for Armenian goods taken from people killed or forced to leave.

In addition, Turks are increasingly interested in discovering Armenian ancestry, rather than concealing it.

A European Jesuit now serving in Turkey, who prefers not to be named, pointed to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement in April 2014 offering condolences to the Armenian descendants of those who died, referring to “shared pain” and “events that had inhuman consequences.”

The priest considers the president’s comments to represent a major change in attitude “that will have a serious impact on public opinion.”

Archbishop Barsamian says he sees positive signs in Turkey, as well: “I’m happy today to see an increase in the number of intellectuals who write about it. In bookstores in Istanbul, you find books on the genocide. Sometimes you see historians discussing it. Some speak in favor and some against, but at least it is an open topic.”


Primary Sources

One young scholar of the period is Uğur Ümit Üngör, a Turkish-born historian who grew up in the Netherlands and is a professor at Utrecht University. His award-winning book The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia, 1913-50 (Oxford University Press, 2011) is a micro-history of how the Armenian genocide defined the emergence of the modern Turkish state.

He also explores why the Turkish government continues a “denial policy” to this day.

Üngör explains that the systematic destruction of Armenian churches — for example, dynamiting the cathedral in Arapkir even when the Armenians had already been banished — together with destroying Armenian books and forensic evidence was an attempt to destroy memory itself.

Üngör says the Turkish government wanted to create the illusion that Armenians did not exist because there’s no longer physical evidence of their presence, but, Üngör points out, real people remember.

Working in the Vatican Secret (meaning “private” in Latin) Archives, German historian Michael Hesemann discovered a cache of unpublished documents related to the Armenian genocide providing multiple perspectives on the horrible reality of the event.

For one thing, Hesemann believes the documents demonstrate that the genocide targeted Christians. After the Armenian population, the Turks moved on to exterminate some 1 million Syrian and Greek Christians.

He points out that women who agreed to convert to Islam were allowed to live. They married Muslim men and concealed their identities, but many remained “crypto” Christians.

Hesemann also traces efforts by the Catholic Church, including Pope Benedict XV, to intervene in order to stop the killing.

Meanwhile, President Woodrow Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, recommended the U.S. government not take action vis-a-vis the Ottoman rulers, although he confirmed mass murder.

In July 1915, Morgenthau wrote, “Deportations of and excesses against peaceful Armenians are increasing, and from harrowing reports of eyewitnesses, it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion.”

He continued, “Protests as well as threats are unavailing and probably incite the Ottoman government to more drastic measures. … I believe nothing short of factual force, which, obviously, the United States is not in a position to exert, would adequately meet the situation.”


History Repeating Itself

While reading firsthand accounts of the Armenian genocide, Hesemann found the gruesome nature of the crimes hard to believe.

“Honestly, when I originally read the eyewitness reports by Catholic priests, Franciscan and Capuchin fathers and the Armenian Catholic clergy and patriarchate, I feared that they might include some exaggerations. I just could not imagine that such a brutality was possible in the 20th century,” the historian shared with the Register by email.

“There were reports of crucifixions and the slaughter of humans ‘just like you slaughter a lamb in a religious sacrifice,’ as one report states, or soldiers piercing bayonets into the wombs of pregnant women,” he added. So many Armenian bodies were thrown into the Euphrates River, it ran red with blood for days.

“Only when I saw reports on the brutality of the Islamic State in northern Iraq and Syria I realized how realistic those [earlier] reports were and that history repeats itself in our times,” wrote Hesemann.

Last November, Islamic radicals blew up a great Armenian church in Deir el-Zor, burning thousands of original records related to the genocide of 1915 and displacing the remains of hundreds of victims who had been entombed in the crypt.

Deir el-Zor was one of the locations where hundreds of thousands of Armenians died of starvation and typhoid after being forced to walk there, from Turkey, on forced death marches.

Hesemann warned, “Now, in our times, again Christians are slaughtered in this very same region. And what do we do to stop those massacres and atrocities? Certainly not enough! Future generations will rightly blame us and make us responsible for every drop of Christian blood spilled there right now.”

To Christians, Archbishop Barsamian urges, “Let’s hope and pray that positive signs grow, because this will help bring reconciliation and peace. Our prayer, our wish, is: Yes we are different, but we have to respect each other, and that is God’s will.”

Victor Gaetan writes from Washington.

He is a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.