Orhan Kemal Cengiz

Orhan Kemal Cengiz

Islamized Christians of Turkey (2)

After a century of forced secrecy, hidden Armenians and Greeks have begun the painstaking process of reclaiming their identities.

A few incidents, especially those involving hidden Christians coming out into the open, claiming their identities, and reckoning with their reality, seem to have served as a catalyst for others to do the same. As writer Vercihan Ziflioglu points out in her book, “The Story of the Armenians in Purgatory,” the January 19, 2007 murder of Hrant Dink was one of the most important turning points in Christian self-recognition: “Dink’s death broke a century of silence, and bit by bit the Crypto-Armenians began to emerge.”

Although Hrant Dink’s murder was understood to be the murder of an Armenian who was too outspoken and too bold in claiming his identity, the enormous public outcry against his killing cascaded into a powerful expression of Armenian identity and solidarity with that identity. Tens of thousands of people attending Hrant Dink’s funeral chanted “We are all Armenians,” and carried banners and placards bearing this proclamation in Armenian, Turkish, English, Kurdish, and other languages. Such a social reaction was unprecedented in Turkey.

This monumental public reaction to Dink’s murder transformed Armenianness from something to be ashamed of to something to be claimed, encouraging Islamized Armenians to come out in the open. According to Ziflioglu, another factor accelerating the reclamation of Armenian identity was the restoration and reopening of historical Armenian churches in Diyarbakir, Van, and Kayseri. For example, the restoration of the Surp Giragos Church in Diyarbakir was a cause of great excitement among secret Armenians. These Armenians began to “be involved in the restoration process, even taking on duties, protecting, and watching over the church.”

Likewise, that the Ministry of Culture undertook reparations of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island in the 2000s created the perception that the state had a newfound openness to minority identities. The flow of Armenian tourists and worshippers from other parts of Turkey and from abroad to the churches in Van and Diyarbakir, and the contacts made between hidden Armenians and these visitors also hastened their reclamation of Christian identity.

However, the hidden Greeks and Armenians who have done the work of publicly reclaiming their historical identities have not been warmly embraced by the Greek and Armenian Churches. On the contrary, the Armenians of Istanbul and diaspora Armenians have excluded formerly hidden Armenians from the Armenian Apostolic Church, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate has only expressed a “cautious welcome” to formerly hidden Greeks. In this context, it is important to remember that the Patriarchate’s interest in Islamized Christians could be negatively viewed in Turkey as a form of missionary activity. Contact with Greeks who have reclaimed their identity may also be seen as a security issue for the Patriarchate.

While for Greeks the process of acceptance and reclamation has occurred mostly on an individual basis, for Armenians this process has sometimes taken a collective form. Formerly hidden Armenians have founded organizations such as the Association of Dersim Armenians, the Association of Bitlis Armenians, and the Association of Sivas Armenians. Most recently, in November 2022, Armenians in Adiyaman formed an association called HAYDER. The establishment of these associations seems to have facilitated and accelerated hidden Armenians’ self-recognition and reclamation of identity. For example, these associations facilitate the proof of Armenian identity required by the Armenian Patriarchate before baptism. Armenians who prove their roots through these associations are admitted to the Armenian Apostolic Church after updating the religion entry on their state identity cards and completing six months of training.

The Greek Orthodox Church has also set conditions for ethnic Greeks who wish to belong to their ancestral church, including religious education. Some candidates are also required to learn Greek.

The steps taken by Turkey’s hidden Armenians and Greeks to recognize their heritage and reclaim their identity undoubtedly represent an advancement in human rights. After a century of secrecy, this recognition and reclamation is a tremendous achievement. However, we cannot say these citizens of Turkey are able to fully exercise their right to identity until Turkey confronts the history and conditions that caused that identity to be buried and inaccessible for so long.

In my recent articles, I have consistently emphasized the importance of coming to terms with the past for Turkey. Evidently, facing past wounds is a multidimensional process. Islamized Christians are one such unique aspect of Turkey’s past, and healing from wounds such as these requires a complex sociocultural transformation as well as changes in the state’s main policies on these matters. It is clear to see, however, that Turkey has not made any meaningful progress in this regard.

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