Armenia is a small nation that has managed to survive despite crippling attacks against its people. Armenians throughout history have been described as sturdy and resilient, competent, brave and long-suffering. Despite being persecuted and forced into a Diaspora, they have retained their identity and heritage, and have formed communities invariably distinguished by the contribution they offered their host countries.
The amazing history of the Armenians in general, and specifically the Armenian Church, which suffered persecution but never forsook the faith, is the focus of this article.
The faithful sect
April 2015 marks the centennial of the genocide of more than one million Armenians in Turkey, and is being commemorated by the Armenian Church around the world. Watani talked to Bishop Krikor Augustine Kusa, the Bishop of Alexandria for Catholic Armenians in Egypt. These are his words.
“Throughout its history Armenia, owing to its natural geography that makes it a mountainous citadel on the road between Europe and Asia, was targeted by many regional powers and was thus the scene of many wars. In the 16th century it was split into an eastern part under Persian then later Russian control, and a western part occupied by the Ottoman Turks. There the Armenians lived under successive Ottoman governments that recognised the Armenians, along with various other sects living under the empire, as a sect with full rights. The Turks found the Armenians to be competent, dedicated workmen and skilled craftsmen, and they made use of them by moving some 10,000 skilled workers and traders to Istanbul where they became so famous for serving the empire faithfully that they were termed ‘the faithful sect’.
“With the onset of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire became weak and drifted backwards to the point that it was branded ‘the sick man of Europe’. This was an era of better education and wider awareness across the world; nationalist sentiments gained ground and many countries spun off the Ottoman Empire and became independent. Among them were Greece, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria.”
The Hamidian massacres
“The Armenians for their part,” Bishop Krikor continued, “tried to gain autonomy and equality with the empire’s Muslim subjects, which led to a violent reaction against them by Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, the 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. It did not help that at the time Turkey was at war with Russia and the eastern Armenians joined the Russian army and fought against the Ottomans.
“Abdel-Hamid was the last Sultan to exert effective autocratic control over the fracturing State. He ascended the throne in August 1876 and ruled until he was deposed on 27 April 1909 shortly after the 1908 Young Turk Revolution. Sultan Abdel-Hamid oversaw widespread government-sanctioned massacres of the Christian people in his empire. These massacres—known as Hamidian massacres—were executed between 1894 and 1896 against hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians who were killed for economic and religious reasons. In Armenia, some 30,000 Armenians lost their lives to the massacres.”
1915: unfathomable savagery
The Armenian genocide of 1915, Bishop Krikor said, did not begin or end in 1915. The Turkish harassment of the Armenians began in 1891 with a ban on the teaching of the Armenian language in Armenian schools. The Turks also banned the circulation of Armenian books, newspapers and magazines. Bishop Krikor went on:
“On the eve of 24 April 1915 more than 200 Armenian writers, poets, newspaper editors, teachers, lawyers, members of parliament and other outstanding Armenians in Istanbul were forcibly taken from their homes, imprisoned, tortured, then brutally put to death. The persecution extended to the Armenian public in its entirety; the scale of the savagery and hideousness of the crimes against the Armenians is unfathomable. Children and young people were doused with gasoline and burnt alive; the elderly were beaten and disfigured; the women were raped; and pregnant women were killed and their unborn babies drowned. Children who were not killed were sold into slavery, and others, young and old, were forced into the desert in Iraq and Syria with no water or food. All Armenian property was confiscated by the Turks. The Turks crucified men and women who, when they called for the help of the Divine, were told: ‘Let your Saviour [Jesus] save you.’ And as Jesus did when on the Cross, the crucified Armenians said: ‘Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do’.”
Convert or die
“Some 1.5 million Armenians died. Among them was Bishop Ignatius Maloyan who was invited by the Turkish officials to be decorated with the highest Ottoman medal. The Bishop told those close to him that he knew very well what would follow the decoration: he would be asked to convert to Islam. When he refused, he was arrested and put in prison. He was made to witness the killing of 417 Armenians, and was asked from time to time whether it was not better to convert to Islam and live. Finally, as he was put to death, he said: ‘God forbid that I renounce Jesus my Saviour. To spill my blood for my faith is the dearest desire of my heart!’
“Bishop Ignatius was 46 years old. He served as a priest at the Armenian Church of Alexandria for several years until he was chosen to be the bishop of Mardin, a province [and Armenian centre] southeast Turkey. He was an excellent speaker of Arabic, Armenian, French, Italian, Turkish and Spanish.
“Twenty-four countries have officially recognised the massacre of the Armenians as genocide. Because of these massacres, Armenians migrated to many countries around the world, including Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, the Holy Land, and Iran.
“After the genocide, the king of present-day Saudi Arabia called on Arab countries to open their doors to the oppressed Armenian people. In Egypt, the same invitation was extended in 1924 by nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul to receive Armenian orphans and afford them a safe life with Armenian families already resident in Egypt. Some 800 Armenian girls and 300 boys came to Egypt.”
The world failed them
By the time WWI was over, the population of western Armenia which had been under Turkish control, and which amounted to some 2 million Armenians, had disappeared—killed or forced into exile. Armenians who survived say the world failed them when the post-WWI Lausanne Treaty mentioned nothing about their homeland, allowing thus its annexation to the Turkish republic in 1923 as Turkey’s Eastern Anatolia region. In 1922, The Red Army sovietised what remained of Russian Armenia. Today, modern Armenia is a country that gained independence from Soviet Russia and is a State in its own right.
“The Turkish government totally rejects the use of the word ‘massacres’,” Bishop Krikor says, “let alone ‘genocide’, and stipulates that, for reconciliation, Armenians should not talk about the 1915 massacres. Moreover, Turkey has made 24 April ‘Childhood Day’ and has even removed the massacres from history books.”
In October 2009, Turkey and Armenia signed a historic agreement to establish normal diplomatic relations and reopen their borders, but only after a last-minute dispute over wording sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other diplomats to exert frantic efforts to salvage the deal. The agreement failed when Turkey refused to recognise the Armenian genocide.
“I received three men from the Turkish Embassy in my office in Cairo. They asked me to join in the path of peace and talk to the Turkish Ambassador without mentioning the Armenian genocide.
“I said that I didn’t mind, but just asked them to place a rose on the shrine of the Armenian martyrs at the entrance of the Bishopric in Cairo. They left and never showed up again.”
Marking the genocide
“We have the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation according to the teachings of the Bible, but we demand our rights, and concerning our Armenian issues, we want justice to be declared—confessing the massacres. We dream of returning to our land, regaining our churches, opening our monasteries in Turkey, and getting back our schools and universities.”
Armenians worldwide mark the genocide on 24 April. This year the centenary of the Armenian genocide is commemorated globally with a programme of seminars and photographic exhibitions, candlelight marches and vigils, and flowers to be placed on memorials for the genocide victims.
To show solidarity with Armenians scattered around the world, a ceremony in Egypt has been organised by the Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia, Armen Melkonian, and Orthodox Armenian Archbishop Ashod Karakashian.
“The Holy Synod of our Church is considering canonising the victims of the Armenian genocide, placing their names in the Synaxarium—the register of saints and martyrs in the Church—because they sacrificed their lives for the love of Jesus Christ,” Bishop Krikor concluded.
22 April 2015