Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Armenians are among the most ancient people of Anatolia. The majority of Armenians in Turkey today belong to the Orthodox Church, while there are also a few Catholic and Protestant Armenians. Their number was around 2 million during the Ottoman Empire. Today, slightly more than 60,000 remain. Of these, around 60,000 are Orthodox, 50,000 of whom live in Istanbul, around 2,000 are Catholic and a small number are Protestant. Officially, the government recognizes Armenians as a minority but as used in Turkey, this term denotes second-class status.
Catholic Armenians have an archbishop in Istanbul and their spiritual leader is the Roman Catholic Pope in Rome. The Orthodox community has its own Patriarchate in Istanbul. Armenians run private schools providing primary and secondary education in their mother tongue.
Many Armenians were killed in Ottoman pogroms against the Armenians in 1894–5 and the genocide of 1915. The Christian communities in Turkey have their rights guaranteed by international law under Articles 38-44 of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, and, unlike Muslim minorities, have been officially recognized as minorities. But although the state respects their minority status, they are regarded as foreigners by most Turks even though they have inhabited the land of modern Turkey for well over 2,000 years, substantially longer than the Turks.
Under the system codified in 1961, the Armenian patriarch was to be chosen by an electoral college of Armenians in Turkey. However, this was changed by the Ozal government in the 1980s, only allowing officially recognized Armenian foundations to take part and restricting candidates by stipulating that the fathers of candidates be Turkish nationals.
In the 1990s there was a rise in tensions over public perception that the Armenians were allegedly in alliance with radical Kurds in trying to dismember Turkey, and in 1995 an Armenian church was bombed. Another factor was the continuing hostility between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkish official and public opinion strongly supported the Azeris whom they see as a fellow Turkic people.
Armenian schools, businesspeople and religious institutions continued to report receiving threats by email, letter and phone. In January 2007 Armenian rights campaigner and writer Hrant Dink was shot dead in broad daylight on the steps of his own office. Dink had been convicted and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in 2005 under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code for ‘denigrating Turkish identity.’ Dink’s assassin, a 17-year-old with 18 alleged accomplices, told police that Dink ‘had insulted Turkishness.’ At a subsequent hearing in October, the gunman’s family accused authorities of collusion in the killing; one co-defendant was a police informant who had notified the authorities of the plot, and Turkish media broadcast a recorded phone call providing further indication that police knew of the plan in advance. In response to the Dink murder, nearly 200,000 protesters took to the streets of Istanbul carrying signs reading: ‘We are all Hrant Dink. We are all Armenians.’
In 2009, Armenia and Turkey signed a historic agreement to resume normal diplomatic relations. But by 2010 the agreement had faltered when both the US and Sweden passed resolutions recognising the Turkish Ottoman mass killings of Armenians as ‘genocide’. Amid resulting tensions, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then Turkish Prime Minister, told the BBC that of the 170,000 Armenians living in Turkey, ‘only 70,000 were Turkish citizens’. He threatened to deport the remaining 100,000 Armenian migrants, ’if it becomes necessary’.
Armenians find it hard to register their children as Armenian. However, the community successfully operates its own schools, old people’s homes and its own press, although at times there has been pressure by the authorities to restrict Armenian language use in schools. In the east, ancient Armenian churches are allowed to fall into ruin, regardless of their spiritual and architectural significance, and the Armenian origin of Seljuk architecture remains unacknowledged.
2015 was the centenary anniversary of the genocide carried out against the Armenians. There were renewed international calls for Turkey to recognize the crimes carried out, but the government has continued to deny the genocide took place. Individuals who have publicly expressed their belief that the genocide did take place, such as the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, have faced the threat of prosecution as a result.
Armenians continue to be targeted with hate speech and hate crime, though there has been some progress in tackling high profile cases such as the conviction in 2016 of the leader of Grey Wolves Organization in Kars for hate speech against Armenians. Nevertheless, the problem of verbal abuse and harassment against the community persists: in 2016 Garo Paylan, an MP of Armenian descent, presented images of derogatory graffiti against Armenians on the walls of ruined villages in the south-east of the country.
Like other minority communities in Turkey, Armenians have faced challenges around land rights and the expropriation of community property. In 2015, for instance, the Kamp Armen orphanage – a site of great importance to the Armenian minority community and once a thriving cultural area before the state annulled the foundation’s ownership of the land in 1983 – began to be demolished. However, after extensive protests and vigils brought the demolition to a halt, the landowner agreed to donate the site to the Gedikpaşa Armenian Protestant Church, which plans to rebuild it as a social and cultural facility.
Updated June 2018
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