On Sunday 12 April, Pope Francis presided over Holy Mass at St Peter’s in the Vatican to commemorate the centenary of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks. All the members of the Armenian Catholic Holy Synod took part. The pope called the deaths “the first genocide of the 20th century,” prompting Ankara to recall its ambassador to the Vatican for consultations.
The European Parliament joined Pope Francis in urging Turkey to recognise the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide, and encouraged Turkey to use the anniversary “to pave the way for genuine reconciliation between the Turkish and Armenian peoples.” This prompted another rebuke from Ankara which vehemently denies allegations of a systematic killing of Armenians during WWI, arguing that hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Muslim, were killed then in conflicts that engulfed the eastern Ottoman Empire. “It is impossible for Turkey to accept this accusation. The stain of genocide on our nation is out of the question.”
Mr Erdogan last year took the unprecedented step of apologising for the deaths, and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last Monday extended condolences to the descendants of the Armenians killed in 1915, but both men stopped short of admitting it was a genocide.
In retaliation to the statement by Pope Francis, the Mufti of Ankara, Professor Mefail Hizli, announced that the country would convert Hagia Sofia Cathedral into a mosque. The historic basilica served as a cathedral for almost a thousand years, till it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The Greek Patriarchal basilica was then converted into a mosque. In 1935 the modern secular Turkish Republic converted it into a museum.
About two dozen countries—including Turkey’s NATO allies France and Germany, and its biggest natural-gas supplier Russia—recognise the Armenian genocide.
Muhammad Rifaat is Professor of Modern History and Chairman of the History Department at Damanhour University, and is an authority on the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks; he is the man to talk to in Egypt about that topic. Watani approached Dr Rifaat about what would be the aftermath of a possible Turkish recognition of the Armenian genocide.
How would the Armenians benefit if Turkey admits to committing the 2015 genocide?
The benefits fall into two categories. First, there is the moral benefit, since Armenians would feel they have avenged their ancestors. Acknowledging the genocide by the international community might also deter committing such acts in the future. Second, Turkey’s admission of genocide means it should compensate the Armenians for the land and property they confiscated in western Armenia, an area that was inhabited by the Armenian people from prehistoric times and was part of the old Kingdom of Armenia before becoming part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. This region is today annexed to Turkey and called the six Armenian Provinces. It comprises the Eastern Turkish provinces of Van, Erzurum, Mamuretulaziz, Bitlis, DiyarBekir and Sivas. The 1915 genocide wiped out the Armenian population in these provinces, and their land, property, workshops and factories were confiscated by the Turkish government. If Turkey admits to the genocide, it will have to pay compensation.
What if Turkey recognises the genocide but offers no compensation?
At first Armenians demanded only moral compensation; that is Turkey’s admission of committing the genocide. However, as Turkey’s intransigence increased and it insisted on denying the genocide, the Armenians raised the ceiling of their demands and demanded material compensation.
Are there documents to support the Armenian cause?
More than 20 countries support the Armenian cause, including the US, Russia, UK, France, and Germany. Many documents that prove the extermination of the Armenians at the hands of the Turkish army are recorded in official German documents; these were reports sent to Germany by the commanders who fought alongside the Ottoman army in the Asitane during WWI and who witnessed the genocide first hand.
There are also official documents sent by the ambassadors of countries to the Ottoman Empire, especially the ambassadors of Germany and the US, who gave a detailed account of the situation.
Has there been any efforts to get Turkey to admit the genocide?
The case was not reviewed at the UN because when the UN adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in 1948, it stipulated that it would not settle historical cases that occurred prior to the organisation’s establishment. Yet the historical references of the UN written in the 1970s include the Armenian genocide. According to UN standards the Armenian genocide is mass extermination. Had the UN been active in 1915, it would have indicted the event, considered it a crime against humanity and included it among the crimes of war.
Likewise, according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the ICC in The Hague does not have competent jurisdiction over cases that occurred before its establishment.
So how can Turkey be made to recognise the genocide?
The only possible solution for the genocide to be recognised by Turkey would be an agreement between the Turkish and Armenian governments. The only authority which can claim compensation is the Armenian government. The International courts can only have a supervisory role over the agreement and over the assessment of the compensations.
Are there any Armenians in Turkey today?
The Armenians currently living in Turkey number 60,000 and are survivors of the Hamidian Massacres of 1894 – 1896. Some 30,000 Armenians who lived in Turkey converted to Islam to escape the genocide, hoping they would later return to their villages and convert back to Christianity. They were never able to do so because they feared execution in the desert. This group of ‘Hidden Armenians’ are Muslim on the outside, but are in reality Christians and practise their faith clandestinely. The case of this group is being studied in the UN. The Turkish government does not consider these Armenians real Turks, and they are constantly under the watchful eye of Turkish intelligence. They are not allowed to enrol in the army or the judicial system and they mainly hold administrative jobs, hence most of them are in trade and commerce.
Many restrictions are imposed on Armenian Turks, to the point that whoever among them speaks about the genocide is put to trial according to article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. The most known case is that of Hrant Dink, a Turkish Armenian editor-in-chief of a Turkish-Armenian newspaper who tried to work a reconciliation between the Turks and Armenians, an idea that was not welcomed by the government. He was prosecuted three times for ‘denigrating Turkishness’ and received a suspended six-month sentence. Mr Dank was assassinated by a fanatic Turkish nationalist in 2007.
Have you met any survivors of the genocide? Can you tell us their stories?
I met Mr Ador/Edward Tomianis, one of the orphans who came to Egypt at the time of the cabinet of Saad Zaghloul in 1924. At the time, Zaghloul ordered that 800 orphaned Armenian girls and 300 boys be brought to Egypt from Palestine. Tomianis was raised in an orphanage, married an Armenian girl and became a prominent businessman. When I met him he told me that he was saved from the genocide by a Muslim woman who hid him in her home.
Watani also talked to Dr Armen Mazlomian, member of the Armenian Genocide Remembrance committee and Head of the Armenian Cause committee.
How were you able to gather the Armenians around the world and establish associations and newspapers?
Armenians in the Diaspora have built their own churches, schools, and clubs; and have established religious and civil organisations which help them keep their faith, customs and traditions. These communities also have their own newspapers which work on preserving the Armenian identity. The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate unites all Armenians of various political affiliations and religious sects. All this has helped maintain the Armenian identity in the four corners of the world, and revived the Armenian national sentiment and unity despite all the hardships. Armenians ask to regain their usurped rights and homeland.
What are, specifically, the Armenian demands 100 years after the genocide?
A report based on the principle of transitional justice includes five main aspects of our demands. The first involves taking those who have committed the genocide to court, but since the direct criminal no longer exists, there is nobody to condemn.
Second, Armenians demand that Turkey acknowledges the genocide and that it apologises for having committed such atrocities. The apology must cover all the details of the genocide and the responsibility of Turkey with respect to the Armenians. Turkey’s compensation must not only be financial; we also demand that the Turkish government changes the school curriculum to include the history of the genocide, that it establishes museums to commemorate the genocide around the world, and that it restores the original Armenian names of the Turkish regions.
Third, The Turkish government must support the Armenians and the Armenian State by giving them material compensation and by reopening the Turkish-Armenian borders which were closed in 1993.
Fourth, Turkey must stop the negative propaganda it has been promoting about the genocide and must correct the erroneous ideas it has rooted in the entire Turkish society. The most important aspect is to change the anti-Armenian sentiment which has been promoted for many decades.
Finally, Turkey must relinquish the property it confiscated from the Armenians during the genocide years; this includes land, buildings, and all kinds of movable and immovable property. Fair material compensation must also be paid to the Armenian State and organisations. Turkey must pay for what it has committed; this will help prevent potential genocides.
22 April 2015