Christianity Today, IL
January 2008, Vol. 52, No. 1
Jan 4 2008


Justice Delayed
Security worries stall recognition of Armenian genocide.

Denise McGill | posted 1/04/2008 09:20AM


Last October, the U.S. Congress caused an international firestorm by
considering a resolution that labeled the killing of Armenians by
Ottoman Turks "genocide." But the resolution stalled on the House
floor, averting a diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and Turkey.

The incident serves to spotlight complexities in American-Turkish
relations that are compounded by long-standing appeals for justice.
In 1915, 2 million Armenian Christians lived in the land that is now
Turkey. By 1925, at least 1 million Armenians were dead, and most of
the others had fled. The reason for the great loss of life is a
matter of acrimonious debate, reverberating all the way to Capitol
Hill nearly a century later.

Karekin II, pontiff of the Armenian Apostolic Church based in the
Republic of Armenia, is spiritual leader to perhaps 7 million
Armenians worldwide. In October, he toured America to drum up support
for the House resolution.

Many scholars say Armenians were victims of the first 20th-century
genocide. But most Turks, descendants of the Ottomans, disagree.
Their historians say the Armenians were casualties of World War I,
not genocide victims.

As Congress considered the resolution, Turkish opposition was fierce
and swift. Protesters marched on American consulates, while the
Turkish government, a NATO member state, warned that passage of the
resolution would forever change Turkey's relationship with the U.S.

Backlash Feared Inside Turkey

Today, Armenian communities flourish around the world, with perhaps
500,000 Armenians in the United States alone. The Republic of
Armenia, established in 1991, is delicately nestled between regional
powerhouses Turkey and Iran. But a mere 70,000 Armenian Christians
remain in Turkey, the birthplace of Armenian identity some 5,000
years ago. The Armenian Apostolic Church formed here in A.D. 301.

Mesrob Mutafyan, patriarch of the Armenian Church in Turkey, opposes
the genocide resolution on the grounds that it may fuel a backlash.
"Who is most vulnerable?" he asks. "The minorities inside. It harms
our relations with the majority in the country." He spoke with
Christianity Today during an interview near Istanbul.

Ethnic Turks and Armenians have an uneasy coexistence. The Armenian
Church in Turkey has an estimated 40,000 regular attendees, and
Turkish Armenians have a well-deserved reputation as the world's most
church-attending people group. But there are only 48 churches and 25
ordained priests. The government closed all Christian seminaries in
1969.

The government has also removed traces of Armenian culture from
locations vacated during World War I. That has sometimes meant
destroying Armenian churches and cemeteries. In a famous case last
year, Armenians restored a church in eastern Turkey, but were not
allowed to put a cross on top or to hold services.

Security is a constant worry. Mutafyan has received many death
threats. The government assigned him a bodyguard for a time, and
incidents decreased. The church hires security forces to protect its
20 elementary schools.

"Turks are usually hospitable people," says Mutafyan. "On the other
hand, ultranationalism in Turkey is rising and there are those who
are afraid that minorities may be targeted."

The pontiff Karekin II, on his U.S. trip, downplayed any risk to
Armenians in Turkey. Karekin told CT, "Truth cannot be a hostage to
the extremists."

Traditional Churches Growing

The patriarch Mutafyan, 51, has broad shoulders and a trim, graying
beard. The spiritual leader of the Armenian community exudes
authority and warmth in a single glance. Often quoted in Turkish
media, he is a man of few, carefully chosen words. He is widely
popular for his charm and intellect, and for his ability to navigate
the political high wires of his public station.

Mutafyan received guests, including CT, recently at his residence on
an island outside Istanbul. In English, he volunteers that he
completed his undergraduate degree in Memphis. "There are Christians
there who don't even drink Coca-Cola," he says jokingly. Once he's
determined that none of his guests are from Memphis, he orders Cokes
for everyone.

But his demeanor turns grave as he looks over new photos of a
vandalized church. More than buildings, his first priority is the
spiritual development of his flock.

Mutafyan had a pivotal religious experience as a teenager. He was
strongly influenced by his father, a devout believer. The young
Mutafyan chose celibacy, not required for Armenian clergy, and threw
himself into ministry. Indeed, he is credited with bringing a
spiritual renewal among Armenians in Turkey.

Under the previous patriarch, Kaloustian, then-bishop Mutafyan
started discipleship groups for prayer and Bible study some 20 years
ago. Today, small groups are key to growth among Turkish Armenians.

Mutafyan spends much time petitioning the government to grant permits
to restore church ruins and allow religious training. "Where do we
send students?" he asks. It's expensive to train leaders overseas.
His church receives no outside funding. "Our church fries in its own
pan."

Mutafyan disputes the claim that he tiptoes around the genocide
issue. "I have said many times that the ruling Committee of Union and
Progress [Turkish government in 1915] took the wrong decision of
punishing all Armenians in the Ottoman Empire," says Mutafyan. "Many
perished in the Syrian Desert." He believes the goal should be
changing citizens' attitudes toward their neighbors. The Republics of
Armenia and Turkey share an international boundary but have no open
border crossings. "I hope that Turks and Armenians would try to be
more empathetic," he says.

That would be a small start. In the meantime, Armenians in Turkey
will continue to bear the brunt of public declarations made on the
world stage. "The more there are difficulties," says Mutafyan, "the
more people are driven to church." And when they do come, their
patriarch prays they will be ready for God to transform their lives.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/j anuary/16.30.html