Armenians in Turkey Today: An Overview

Armenian seniors in the schoolyard next to the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul.

Currently, estimates place the number of Armenia’s in Turkey between 55,000 and 75,000. While most of them belong to the Armenian Apostolic church, a small portion of these Armenia’s are Catholic or Protestant. The Armenian community is concentrated in several districts in Istanbul including Bakirkoy, Sisli, Kurtulus, and Samatya.

During Ottoman times, Armenia’s who obeyed the law got by as long as they accepted a legal and social code that was different than that which was applied to their Muslim countrymen. However, harsher methods–such as outright killings and deportations–were employed as the empire neared its end, especially during the Hamidian and later transition years (the Young Turk era) towards the new republic.

Things changed following the creation of the Turkish Republic. One can say that the government followed a certain “path,” rather than the institutionalized segregation reminiscent of Ottoman times. In other words, the Ottoman’style discrimination became much more discreet, yet was nevertheless still prevalent. This newer “path” can be described as an accumulation of methods, such as: indirect intimidation of the minorities; arbitrary laws that create and support legal uncertainty; and policies that aim to create weariness among the Armenian population to pass on its religion, culture and language to the next generation.

In 1942, along with the other non-Muslim minorities, Armenia’s in Turkey were forced to pay a wealth tax which was arbitrarily imposed to bring about the impoverishment of non-Muslim segmen’s of Turkish society. As an open example of the impetus behind such discriminatory measures, the then Prime Minister Sukru Saracoglu delivered a speech on August 5, 1942, where he described the Turkish administration’s program and stated that his nation is, “Turkish, pro-Turkish, and will always remain pro-Turkish. As much as being a blood matter, Turkishness is also a matter of conscience and culture. We want the authority of neither monarchy nor capitalism, nor the authority of classes. We only want the dominion of the Turkish nation.”

Later, in the mid-1950s, Armenia’s and Greeks in Istanbul became the victims of Turkish mobs, inflamed by the issue of Cyprus, which rioted through their communities destroying personal property churches and cemeteries with the indirect help of the military.

Today, although Armenia’s do have a legal minority status in Turkey, their religious leadership organs are not recognized in the same way. For instance, the Armenian Patriarchate continues to this day to seek legal recognition of its status as patriarchates rather than foundations. This particular problem prevents it from having the right to own and transfer property and train religious clergy.

Outright killings of Armenian civilians do not occur anymore, as far as we know; however, the intensive anti-Christian (or, more broadly, anti-foreign) propaganda by the media outlets–which are heavily influenced by the government–do result in attacks by nationalists on Armenian individuals, churches and cemeteries. This is especially true since the Armenian community represents the largest non-Muslim element in Turkey. Even though it may not be appropriate to blame the entire Turkish government for these attacks or for the recent murder of journalist Hrant Dink, powerful elemen’s within the government are certainly responsible for them.

Furthermore, the Armenian community in Turkey faces the burden of often being blamed for the country’s image problems abroad. International Genocide recognition efforts create resentment and public anger towards the Armenian community. This active anger is fueled by active propaganda which results in the creation of a society where the average Armenian living in Turkey feels like a stranger–despite the fact that he or she is born in that country, and is supposed to be a part of the fabric of Turkish society.

It is worth mentioning here that Hrant Dink’s murder, along with other developmen’s, created a slight ripple of change in public opinion in Turkey during recent years. More and more intellectuals have publicly recognized the Armenian Genocide. Furthermore, a group of intellectuals started an apology campaign. However, it is too early to say that the Turkish government or the people are ready to do what is right. Apology campaigns and seminars that shed light on the Armenian Question are not taken seriously by the authorities, and are resented by the vast majority of the general public.

The problem seems to be that the Turkish government is still extremely worried about the Armenian Question; even an insignificant minority population that has no right of association is recognized as a “potential threat to the national security” by this government. This fright leads the government to create an environment in which the average Armenian will feel so uncomfortable that eventually they will end up emigrating or losing their identity and assimilate.

The Genocide and the events that led up to it caused the disappearance of a significant portion of Armenian existence. In addition, after the World War I, the political, cultural and financial harassment led to the present situation of Armenia’s in Turkey. The Armenian community will not have much left to recover if Armenia’s abroad do not act to do something to protect their compatriots from this new way of oppression.

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