By Raffi Bedrosyan
ISTANBUL — What a difference a year makes. It was August 2015 when Project Rebirth organized trips to Armenia for a large group of hidden Islamized Armenians from Diyarbakir, Urfa, Dersim, Sasoon, Van and Hamshen regions of Turkey, to help them find their roots, language, culture and history. It seems like decades ago, but it was April 2015, when there was a piano recital at the recently-reconstructed Surp Giragos Church in Diyarbakir, to commemorate the Armenian Genocide Centennial attended by more than a thousand hidden Armenians. The regular monthly breakfast meetings of the hidden Armenians of Diyarbakir at the Surp Giragos Church have now become a distant memory. The Armenian language classes so enthusiastically attended by Islamized Armenians in Dersim and Diyarbakir have long been suspended.
As organizer of the trips to Armenia, it was gratifying for me to receive emails from some of these no-longer hidden Armenians, such as: “Before I went to Armenia I was a Kurd, and I returned as an Armenian” or, “For years I fought for the rights of Kurds before I found out I was an Armenian at the deathbed of my father, now I want to go fight in Artsakh.”
It was doubly gratifying to see youngsters from Diyarbakir attending university in Yerevan, already speaking Armenian and acting as guide to tourists. It was also a pleasant surprise to find out that the last trip to Armenia resulted in marriage between a hidden Armenian from Hamshen and a hidden Armenian lady from Diyarbakir, who wouldn’t even have known about each other’s existence before last year. In ever-growing numbers, the hidden Armenians had started making contact with one another within Turkey, establishing links with people in Armenia and Diaspora.
And now? The past year has been a living hell for the hidden Armenians of Turkey. The civil war between the Kurdish resistance guerillas and the Turkish army has resulted in massive destruction in southeastern and eastern Turkey. Most of the buildings in the region have been bombed or burnt by the army and police forces, followed by complete demolition and razing of the damaged buildings, creating vast open areas in many urban centers, with only a few mosques, police stations or government buildings left standing. Entire neighborhoods have disappeared, reduced to rubble. The Surp Giragos Church in Diyarbakir has escaped the fighting relatively intact structurally, with only broken windows and a large hole in one of the exterior walls. But the Turkish security forces have used it as an army base, desecrating the church, burning some of the pews as firewood, with garbage and the smell of urine everywhere. The attached gift and souvenir shop has been destroyed. Several stores and houses in the adjacent blocks to the church, which were originally owned by the church and only recently returned to church ownership after years of negotiations, have now been demolished by the government, along with many of the historic narrow streets and buildings leading to the church. At present, the church stands in the middle of a vast open area.
But worst of all, in March 2016, the Turkish government passed legislation, expropriating the church and all of the properties belonging to the church. The church is now closed to public. The Armenian church foundation has taken the expropriation to Turkish courts, and in case of unsuccessful outcome at the Turkish courts, the intention is to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights.