Soapbox: Armenians and Turks: can they reconcile?

Soapbox: Armenians and Turks: can they reconcile?

February 28, 2006
Written by Daniel Hazard

A full-page story written by Editor Emeritus W. Evan Golder appeared in the December-January issue and received quite a bit of reaction. Here are some of the responses we received.

'Depth of betrayal'

The gasping sound you cannot or do not hear is the sound of my halted breath as I read W. Evan Golder's article, "Armenians and Turks: Can they reconcile?" The depth of betrayal is only matched by my sense of shock. To disguise a pitch for Turkish absolution around the gift of reconciliation and lay the responsibility for future discussion at the feet of the very people who were violated is unconscionable.

The article uses as sources a Western European missionary, a Turkish journalist and a nameless Armenian. How is that a tactic of a just peace church, of a church with noted Armenian clergy and lay people and a church that embraced the Armenian Evangelical Union as member churches? There are many Armenians who could have spoken wisely, with credibility and who would have been unafraid to use their names.

I was raised in a UCC family, and I am grateful my mother died this year before she could read this article. Everything she nurtured us to believe and that we held onto in the UCC has been assaulted. However, cleverly or mindlessly, you have succeeded in becoming an advocate for Job's friends.

As an Armenian-American, a Christian educator and UCC clergywoman, I am struck that you missed a very significant image. You used a photo of Istanbul and emphasized the people of Turkey. This seems ironic to me. If I were going to offer a visual image of the situation that exists in Armenian and Turkish relations, it would have been Mount Ararat, the mountain referred to in the Noah story and the mountain upon which the Turks killed 1.5 million of our people and sent the majority of the rest into Diaspora.

For years, we have worked diligently to offer to the church whatever we could, putting all justice issues of each community alongside, and sometimes ahead of, our own. Today, I experience betrayal beyond words. My heart aches for our church. God was silenced on page 21 of United Church News, grace and truth were compromised.

The Rev. Ginna Minasian Dalton
Fairfax, Va.

Turkey must admit Genocide

I am one of those people born into the UCC after my parents found a home within its inclusivity. They were two Armenians born in the United States, and there could not have been two more dedicated people to God through the UCC than my parents. I am glad that both of them did not live long enough to see the article published in the December-January issue of United Church News.

It isn't that we are not a people desiring reconciliation. That goes without saying. We are Christians, and reconciliation is at the center of how we were raised. What is so disturbing is how people expect reconciliation before a country like Turkey has even admitted to the genocide of the Armenian people. I have dedicated my life to God through this church, and I have yet to hear or read an article in United Church News about the Genocide in and of itself, even though this church prides itself on being the voice for the oppressed.

I have witnessed UCC presidents apologize for atrocities that have affected most of the people of this planet, but when it comes to the Armenians, you seem to want us to be quiet, polite and play by your rules.

I understand how people in Turkey may express concern about issues they face now. I understand how talking about the past may seem like an avoidance of what is needed now. But the reality is that the oppression, the issues they face now, are part of that past story.

In South Africa, the peace and reconciliation conversation happened only after its government admitted wrongdoing. Then, the Truth Commission could move forward. I would love to be a part of such a healing experience [between Armenians and Turks],as painful as it would be. But unless there is an admission to the Genocide you will not get many of us at the table.

You ask us to put history into context, but whose context? I think it is clear that this church has decided that they have found one group they don't really want to reach out to - the Armenians.

The Rev. Susan A. Minasian
Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Learn of Genocide, denial

W. Evan Golder's article "Armenians and Turks: Can they Reconcile?" is informative and helpful.

Readers might be interested to know that the film "Ararat" deals with the 1915 Armenian Genocide and the official Turkish denial. Directed by Atom Egoyan, a leading Canadian filmmaker of Armenian descent, the film raises consciousness about this event and sets it in historical context - the two prerequisites for reconciliation identified in Golder's article.

By telling a story of the making of a film about the Genocide, Egoyan is able to offer us multiple perspectives on the universal significance of this particular event.

When the next Armenian Martyrs Day comes in the UCC calendar (April 24), pastors might want to promote reconciliation by organizing a screening and discussion of "Ararat."

Harold Hatt
St. John's UCC, Okeene, Okla.

The W. Evan Golder-penned article also prompted three national UCC leaders to release the following historical piece called "Armenian Christianity, the Genocide, and the UCC."

Armenian Christianity, the Genocide, and the UCC

Armenian Christianity is over 1700 years old, making it one of the most ancient expressions of Christianity in the world. The relationship of the UCC to Armenian Christians began in the 19th century as missionaries from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions went to Turkey and Armenia, establishing an extensive network of churches, hospitals and schools serving hundreds of thousands of Armenians. That missionary endeavor often reflected an ignorance among American Protestants of the enduring presence of Christianity among Orthodox Armenians and, as a result, displayed an insensitivity to Armenian Orthodox Christians who had preserved their faith and their church for centuries. During this period the Armenian Evangelical community was born.

Today, the UCC continues to be enriched by its relationship to Armenian Christians. Descendants of the Evangelical community who migrated to the United States in the 20th century have been part of the UCC as members of congregations of Armenian heritage. While the number of these congregations has declined significantly in recent years, Armenian Americans remain a vital part of our church, serving in local churches, Conferences, seminary settings and as active lay leaders witnessing for justice in our society.

Through the UCC/Disciples' Common Global Ministries Board, the UCC is a partner of the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East, based in Beirut, and supports their educational work. This relationship was affirmed by General Synod 21 in 1997. Global Ministries also works closely with the Armenian Missionary Association of America to provide support for education and health projects in Armenia and elsewhere. Through the World and National Councils of Churches, the UCC also enjoys warm relationships with the Armenian Apostolic Church centered in Holy Etzmiadzen in Armenia, with centers as well in Istanbul, Jerusalem, Beirut and the United States. Through these relationships we continue to address the wounds to the Orthodox communities caused by the Protestant missionary experience.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Armenians became the objects of a horrific policy of religious and ethnic cleansing by the Ottoman Turks. This policy, forged in the volatile international colonial politics of Europe, the Middle East and the Balkans preceding World War I, ebbed and fl owed in intensity until coming to a climax in 1915 in the Genocide in which 1.5 million people were killed and thousands of others were displaced. During the Genocide many missionaries of the American Board courageously stood with their Armenian sisters and brothers, attempting to protect them as best they could; some lost their lives. In the United States, New England Congregationalists attempted to rally public opinion to force the United States government to come to the Armenians' aid. The Genocide of 1915 is observed in the UCC Desk Calendar every April 24, designated as Armenian Martyrs Day.

The genocide resulted in the near destruction of the vibrant Armenian community in Turkey and the creation of a world-wide Diaspora of Armenian Christians, many of whom found their way to other parts of the Middle East and to the United States. The suffering of Armenian Christians was to continue, however, with the Soviet domination of Armenia during much of the rest of the 20th century, a domination that led to the oppression of the Armenian Apostolic Church and to its own internal divisions. Our partners in Beirut suffered themselves during the civil war that so devastated Lebanon in the 1980s.

The Genocide, the first of a series of historical atrocities in the 20th century which included the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans and Rwanda, has never been formally and publicly acknowledged by the Turkish government. Indeed, a policy of denial has persistently attempted to rewrite history to minimize the suffering and victimization of Armenians as well as the culpability both of the Turks and of the international community which largely failed to protect this vulnerable population.

Apology is not revenge by victims against their oppressors. Apology is a recognition that the healing of memories can only take place where truth is acknowledged and where sin - individual and corporate - is confessed. As in South Africa, reconciliation can only be founded in truth telling. The call for Turkish apology by Armenians, whether they live in Turkey or Armenia or the Diaspora, is not the preoccupation of victims with their own victimization.

Those of us who have had the privilege of relationships with Armenian Christians understand that their preoccupation is sustaining vital ministries among their people, preserving precious theological and liturgical traditions, education their youth, fostering the global ecumenical movement, and creatively engaging the challenging interfaith realities of their contexts. The call for apology is, rather, the yearning for reconciliation that can only occur when the horror of the past is owned and acknowledged as a basis for concrete acts of repentance, reparation, and restoration.

The UCC, because of our missionary legacy in Turkey and in the context of our current ecumenical relationships, has a high responsibility to help our own members learn about the richness of the Armenian Christian tradition, teach the truth about the genocide, recognize our own role in the division of Armenian Christians into Orthodox and Evangelical communities and work to overcome that division, and to labor for a healing of historical memories, a reconciliation based in truth. Of particular importance is on-going support for the Armenian minority in Turkey, for the people of Armenia who struggle today to rebuild their nation following the decades of Communist rule, and for the Armenians of the Diaspora, especially in the Middle East, both Orthodox and Evangelical, who bear witness to peace and justice in that troubled part of the world.

The Rev. John H. Thomas
UCC General Minister and President

The Rev. Lydia Veliko
UCC Ecumenical Officer

Peter Makari
Global Ministries' European/Middle East Executive  

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