Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Islamized Christians of Turkey (1)
In Turkey, the survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide and their descendants are sometimes called “remnants of the sword.” The use of this phrase admits that a mass killing has occurred with some survivors having escaped the genocide. Besides this phrase, which has been used for many years, other phrases describing descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors have proliferated in the last two decades.
In her book “The Story of the Armenians in Purgatory,” Vercihan Ziflioglu notes that phrases such as “Crypto-Armenians,” “Muslim Armenians,” and “Islamized Armenians” are also in use. These terms all refer to the same social phenomenon: The genocide caused some Christian Armenian citizens of Turkey to hide their religious identity, with the result being that their descendants have continued to conceal this identity, may know very little about it, or may even have become unaware of their religious and ethnic heritage.
A similar phenomenon, though not as well known, has occurred among the survivors of the 1914—1923 massacres targeting the Greek community, and among those Greeks who remained in Anatolia after the 1923 Turkish-Greek population exchange. Gercek News recently published a piece about a parallel of this phenomenon experienced by Alevized Armenians in the Dersim region. The Gercek News article shows that the Armenians living in Dersim and the ones who escaped the genocide and took refuge in this region became Alevis to protect their lives and their integrity.
In order to remain whole, to survive, or even to simply exist in Turkey, these minority members had to assume another identity. Some adopted their new Muslim identity with sincere belief, becoming Muslims even to themselves. Others saw their former identity as the true one and never abandoned it, but hid it carefully. Some who secretly remained Christian passed on this “inner knowledge” to the next generations, while others avoided telling their children about their family origins to protect them.
In the Turkish nationalist narrative, the prefix “crypto,” attached to a religious identity, is used as a pejorative. It insults the holder of the identity, implying that he or she is unreliable. This use of “crypto” implies that though the identity holder had the choice to live openly and honestly as a member of a particular religion, he or she deliberately chose to deceive others instead.
On the one hand, the concept of “secret Christians” can be viewed as a component or a subtopic of Turkey’s failure to face its past. The burden of horrific events in Turkish history is displaced from the perpetrators and their heirs to the victims and their descendants. Instead of confronting the sins of our grandfathers and grandmothers, we point the finger at the victims of those sins and accuse them of freely choosing secrecy and deception.
On the other hand, this great tragedy of forced hidden religious identity merits an analysis of its own as a unique problem that cannot be fully addressed under another topic. This problem is the denial of a right to identity. I frame the concept in this way because when these hidden Christians became known, neither the wider Muslim community nor the representatives of Turkey’s minorities accepted them.
These individuals’ right to identity and Turkey’s need to confront its past intersect and overlap. If Turkey had confronted its past, its relationship with all its minorities would have undergone a profound change. If we imagine an atmosphere in which the Armenian Genocide has been fully confronted, we see that Armenians in Istanbul would be regarded as the grandchildren of genocide victims. However, the identity of “hidden Armenians” is more nuanced and complex than simply being the grandchildren of genocide victims. “Hidden Armenians” are victims not only of the genocide but also of another grave violation of rights that is not included in the acknowledgement of 1915. Their identities—whether destroyed or merely hidden—have been denied them. They lost family members to the genocide and somehow survived themselves, but this survival came at the cost of all ties to their ancient culture and identity.
The right to identity is recognized under international human rights law as an autonomous, independent right that includes the right to one’s name, family, and culture. From this perspective, it is evident that the right of Islamized (or Alevized) Armenians and Greeks to their own names, families, and cultural identities is subject to severe, ongoing violation. For had these Islamized minorities not found themselves forced to convert, had they had an uninterrupted connection with their ancestry and heritage, they would have had different names and different family histories, and would have inherited a different culture. Although it can be said that such losses occur during any assimilation, the word “assimilation” is inadequate to describe the intensity and destruction of the loss at play in Turkey where there has been a complete erasure of identity.
We do not know exactly how many Armenians remained in Anatolia after the Armenian Genocide or how many Greeks remained in Turkey after the population exchange. However, some estimates have been made using existing data. According to estimates by the Armenian Patriarchate, an estimated 100,000 Armenian women and children remained in Anatolia following the genocide. No such comparable data exists regarding the Greek minority.
The Greeks and Armenians who remained in Anatolia after the massacres, population exchanges, and genocide experienced further social fracturing. Taking Armenian families as an example, we see that some remained Christian, some truly became Muslim, and some split, with part of the family maintaining a Christian identity and the other part becoming devout Muslims. It is also known that some Armenian families adopted a Kurdish-Alawite identity, especially in the Dersim region. Still others, though they converted to Islam, intermarried only with other Islamized Armenian families, and saw themselves as Muslims of Armenian ethnicity.
These Anatolian Christians were, in a way, absorbed by the social structures surrounding them. On the one hand, they produced new forms of existence within the wider Muslim community, while on the other hand, they kept alive the beliefs and cultures they carried from the past in various forms. For example, as researcher Mert Kaya points out in “The Islamization of Anatolian Greeks between the years 1919-1925: A study of memory,” the Christian tradition of egg painting continued until recently in these Islamized families. And although Islam generally forbids the consumption of alcohol, among these families were liquor and wine producers. Likewise, many traditions unrelated to Islam, mostly in accordance with the Christian faith, continue to live on in Turkey’s Black Sea region. These include customs such as using coffins to bury the dead and participating in activities that reflect the church calendar.
The stories of Islamized Greeks and Armenians learning their true identities differ greatly. For some, this identity is something they had always intuited from clues in their environment. For example, some secret Armenians living in southeastern Turkey say they were referred to by their neighbors as “Mıslimeni.” This Kurdish word literally means “Muslim,” but according to Ziflioglu, was used to denote converts to Islam. In other cases, older family members were aware of their past and origins, but kept this knowledge from other individuals within the family.
When it comes to this knowledge of identity, the state is undoubtedly in the greatest position to recognize Islamized Christians who are unaware of their own background. Turkey has kept detailed demographic statistics of the family histories of its citizens and thus has access to everyone’s genealogy, including those of so-called “secret” Greeks and Armenians.
In the upcoming part, we will discuss the developments that helped these “Islamized Christians” reclaim their identities.