For Turkey's Armenians, painful past is muted

By Anne Barnard,
Globe Staff
November 30, 2006
http://www.boston.com/

ISTANBUL -- When Mesrob II, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul and All
Turkey, meets today with Pope Benedict XVI, the o - ne topic he says he
definitely won't bring up is the o - ne 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 o - nly 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 o - n 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 o - nerous 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 o - n 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 o - n 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 o - n 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 o - n 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 o - n 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."

Anne Barnard can be reached at [email protected]

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