In 1915, in the turmoil and chaos of the dying Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman authorities decided to move the entire Armenian population from the interior of Turkey to the deserts of northern Syria. Many Armenians say it was genocide — a systematic, planned effort by the government to exterminate the 4,000-year-old Armenian people. Many Turks say genocide never happened, but admit that deaths did occur, although in the context of war.
Even so, early this year, internationally known Turkish author Orhan Pamuk ("Snow," "My Name is Red") made worldwide headlines by referring to the Armenian "genocide."
Most Americans, unfortunately, know nothing about this issue.
Alison Stendahl, a UCC/Disciples of Christ missionary who has taught in Global Ministries-related schools in Turkey since 1980, has developed a special interest in Armenian- Turkish reconciliation. Her interest in archives and her growing friendships with Armenian persons in Turkey got her interested in the issue. Among her close associates, there is no doubt as to what happened in 1915.
"We are not denying our own history, and we know what has happened," says Hrant Dink, owner and editor-in-chief of Agos, an international, bilingual (Turkish- Armenian) newspaper in Istanbul. "Up to now, most Turkish people have not known much about the events of 1915. Now we have more freedom of expression and freedom of information."
Minds do change
This freedom of information does lead to changed minds. For example, one 16-yearold Turkish student did a lot of research in order to represent Armenia in a model U.N. meeting at The Hague in The Netherlands.
"Turkish people don't accept that there was a massacre," he says. "But when you read people's personal stories, where they say, 'I lost an uncle' or 'I lost a sister,' you are more likely to think that it could have happened."
"My grandmother and grandfather were children of the massacre," says one Armenian woman who does not want her name used. "When people debate whether or not there was a massacre, we don't have to debate because we have the truth, we live the truth."
But both the newspaper editor and the Armenian woman emphasize that the real problem for Armenians in Turkey today is not the past, but the present.
Officially, the Istanbul head of the government's department of religious affairs says that "so-called minorities in Turkey" are considered independent. Turkey is 99 percent Muslim, but, he says, "churches and synagogues are recognized as being autonomous, according to a 1924 treaty."
"I haven't seen any discrimination," he adds.
Many Armenians paint a different picture.
"It's true that today Armenians are like Turks in Turkey," says the woman. "As persons, we don't have any problems. We can live like normal persons or families. We can have jobs — up to a point. Our young men have to do military service just like any young Turkish man, but they cannot have any critical jobs in the military or on a police force.
"If you start talking about our rights in society, that's when the problems start," she says. For example, she explains, Armenians can't inherit income-producing properties; rules and regulations do not permit a higher education section (beyond high school) for Armenians, so there are no trained Armenian teachers; and there are no opportunities for Armenians to train religious leadership for the 40 Armenian churches in Turkey.
"Of course it hurts when people talk about the deaths in 1915," she adds, "but still we have these problems today."
Should Turkey apologize?
So what about the efforts of Armenians overseas to get the Turkish government to apologize for what happened in 1915?
"Armenians living abroad are angry at Armenians in Turkey because in dealing with today's issues we don't talk about the past," says the woman. "I cannot blame the Armenians in diaspora because they have not learned to handle friendship with Turks. We Armenians who live in Turkey have learned how to do this. Armenians in diaspora have not. They remember their last memory of Turkey, and they visit this upon their children."
"The present has its own problems," says Hrant Dink. "Efforts to get France or the U.S. Congress to try to pressure Turkey to apologize do not facilitate our own work. We understand the trauma of those who work for an apology, but we have the wish to overcome this trauma. If an apology ever comes, it will come through dialogue with the Turks, not from political pressure.
"Armenians around the world should focus on the security and prosperity of the people of Armenia in their own state," he says. "After all, this country is a reality now. Turkey and Armenia are neighboring countries, and we have to learn how to live together. One day, when we succeed in living together, then we will have peace.
"I do not expect anyone else to apologize," he says. "I am the owner of this great suffering and I can carry this burden of suffering by myself, even as Christ was willing to carry his own cross. Armenian churches have a spiritual role to play in this, in helping people to follow the teachings of Christ and not to be concerned about taking revenge."
Stendahl says the Armenians in Turkey have learned to live and work with the Turkish descendents of 90 years ago.
"They have lives to live and would like to do so," she says. "They would be the first ones to declare the need for reconciliation and resolution to the past. Yet they are also concerned with living in the present and know that the apology everyone would want is not close at hand, but the discussions have started, as controversial as they are.
"What will bring about an apology," she says, "is a change in Turkey's willingness to examine all aspects of its own history openly and honestly, for the Armenians to be willing to put this history into a context, and for both sides to look at this history as a long continuum of events."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News. He visited Istanbul earlier this year.
Full Name: Republic of Armenia
Full name: Republic of Turkey