By Raffi Bedrosyan
The conference organized by the Hrant Dink Foundation about “Islamicized Armenians” at the Istanbul Bosphorus University in early November broke one more taboo in Turkey. A hidden reality, a secret known by many but which couldn’t be revealed to anyone, whispered behind closed doors but also filed in government intelligence offices, finally broke open into the public.
The late Hrant Dink would be elated to see this conference become a reality, eight years after the first conference about “Armenians during the late Ottoman Empire era and the 1915 events” held at Istanbul Bilgi University, when protesters hurled insults at the conference participants and government ministers labeled them “traitors stabbing Turks in the back.” That conference had also broken a taboo, but Hrant was already a marked man for revealing the identity of the most famous “Islamicized Armenian, Sabiha Gokçen, Ataturk’s adopted daughter and the first female Turkish combat pilot, to be in fact an Armenian orphan of 1915 in the name of Hatun Sebilciyan.
It is a known fact that in 1915 tens of thousands of Armenian orphans were forcibly Islamicized and Turkified, tens of thousands of Armenian girls and young women were captured by Kurds and Turks as slaves, maids or wives, tens of thousands Armenians converted to Islam in order to escape deportations and massacres, and tens of thousands of Armenians found shelter in friendly Kurdish and Alevi villages but lost their identity. What happened to these survivors, or living victims of the 1915 genocide? Hrant was obsessed with them: “We keep talking about the ones ‘gone’ in 1915, let us start talking about the ones who ‘remained.’”
These remaining people survived, but mostly in living hells. And what’s remarkable, their children and grandchildren are now “coming out, no more hiding their Armenian roots. One of the first was the famous Turkish lawyer Fethiye Çetin, who revealed that her grandmother was Armenian, in her book, My Grandmother. This was followed by another book edited by Aysegul Altinay and Fethiye Çetin, The Grandchildren, about dozens of Turkish/Kurdish people describing their Armenian roots, without revealing their real identities. Then came the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir, which became a destination for many hidden Armenians in Eastern Anatolia to come out.
On average, more than 100 people visit the church daily, most of them hidden Armenians. Some come to pray, get baptized or married, but most just visit to feel Armenian, without converting back to Christianity. This has created a new identity of Moslem Armenians, in addition to the historical and traditional identity of Christian Armenians. In a country where only Moslem Turks can work for the government, where being non-Moslem is sufficient excuse for persecution, harassment and attacks, where the word Armenian is used as the biggest insult, it takes real courage for someone to reveal that he is now an Armenian and no longer a Turk/Kurd/Moslem. People can easily lose their jobs, livelihoods or even lives for changing their identity. Just to give an example of the level of racism and discrimination, an ultra-nationalist opposition member of parliament accused the Turkish President Abdullah Gul of having Armenian roots in his family from Kayseri. Gul sued her for defamation for being labeled an Armenian; the courts sided with him, ordering her to pay compensation for such an insult.