Dec 25 2009

Turkey and its historic Christian minorities: one step forward, one
step back, as the country struggles with its identity. Is Turkey
defined by its "Turkishness," or is it a liberal democracy where
members of minority groups have equal rights, and history is faced

Recent events reveal ambiguity. Turkey has announced that the tenth
century Akdamar, or Aghtamar, Armenian church on Lake Van in eastern
Turkey will be no longer be a museum, but will be opened for worship
in 2010. In its incarnation as a museum, there was no cross on top
of the church; however, a cross will crown the church next year.

One may wonder if many churchgoers will show up for services. If
I'm not mistaken, the Armenian remnant in Turkey today lives mostly
in Istanbul and Ankara, not in the historic territory of western
Armenia/eastern Turkey. The mayor of Van, Munir Karaoglu, is quoted
as saying that Akdamar will become a pilgrimage site for Armenians
worldwide. That is probably a realistic assessment. Akdamar will
likely resemble the Cairo synagogue, nowadays frequented principally
by American or Israeli Jews.

Indeed, some Armenians reacted coolly to the announcement. Ruben
Safrastyan, Director of Armenia's Institute of Oriental Studies,
National Academy of Sciences, dismissed the opening of the church
as a "formal gesture": "There are thousands of churches in Turkey,
which have been systematically destroyed. The destruction of Armenian
churches continues up to now." But while the Akdamar decision is not as
welcome as, say, Turkey's coming to grips with the Armenian Genocide,
even "gestures" show some progress, progress that Turks and Armenians
can build on.

On the other hand, Turkey's reaction to events in distant Australia do
not show it at its best. Fairfield, a suburb of Sydney, has approved
the erection of a memorial to the Assyrian genocide. Proponents of
the memorial state that about 750,000 Assyrians living in the Ottoman
Empire, 75 per cent of the total, were killed by Turks in 1915-1918,
the same time frame as the far more well-know Armenian Genocide.

Turkey went ballistic. Oguz Ozge, Turkey's ambassador to Australia,
said that the proposed monument is "very offensive," adding: "It hurts
the Turkish Australians living in this country and it is an attempt
at destroying the harmony of the two communities living in Australia
side by side. We are looking into whether we can do anything, legally
or otherwise." These are the same sort of pressure tactics Turkey has
employed for years in its attempt to prevent international recognition
of the Armenian Genocide.

Frankly, I didn't even know that Turkey had another genocide
in its closet to deny. Turkey ought to take this opportunity to
bravely face its past. That would win worldwide respect. Its current
approach of denial, bluster and bullying shows a lack of wisdom and
self-confidence--it earns Turkey no credit.