Raffi Bedrosyan

The Hidden Lives of Islamized Armenians Living in Plain Sight in Turkey


WATERTOWN — For more than an hour and a half on Friday, April 20, speaker Raffi Bedrosyan rattled off stories and statistics about “hidden” Armenians in Turkey today, accompanied by slides, keeping the audience at St. James Armenian Church’s Keljik Hall entranced.

Bedrosyan spoke at a program sponsored jointly by the Tekeyan Cultural Association and St. James Armenian Church. He had come to Boston to be the keynote speaker at the Massachusetts State House annual Armenian Genocide commemoration, which had taken place earlier in the day.

Bedrosyan started on the subject by saying, “My late friend, Hrant Dink, kept telling me they kept talking about the dead and the gone, but it’s time to speak of the living.”

Bedrosyan said regretfully that of his three close friends in Turkey, two, Hrant Dink and Tahir Elci, were killed, while a third, Osman Kavala, is in prison. Elci was a prominent Kurdish human rights attorney whom the Turkish military killed in 2015 while he was speaking about Kurdish rights at a press conference. Kavala is a proponent of Genocide recognition and Kurdish rights.

Bedrosyan said that the Armenian population globally comprises four sources: Armenia, Artsakh, the diaspora and Turkey. In the latter, he estimates, there are about 2 million Armenians who either know and keep quiet about their identity or who are still unaware they are at least part Armenian.

Tracing back the story, he showed slides of “lucky” orphans who survived the Armenian Genocide and were forcibly Turkified and Islamized in the many state-run orphanages.

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“They were given Turkish names, circumcised, and Turkified,” he explained. “Thousands of boys that were physically fit were trained in military schools and became soldiers. Some were taken to the front to fight against the Armenian Republic” in 1918, in a particularly ironic and cruel gesture.

The girls did not make it into orphanages often; they sometimes endured an even crueler fate: being sold as slaves. While the slave markets in the Ottoman Empire had been abolished and closed down in 1908, by 1915 the practice restarted. Armenian girls sold for the price of a lamb; however, girls from wealthier families were worth more as the buyer also got the girl’s property as often they were the sole survivors of their families.

Among the most famous of the Armenian girls adopted was Sabiha Gokçen, the daughter of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. Gokçen is a historic character in her own right, including for being the first female military pilot in Turkey, and her name graces the Ankara airport. Hrant Dink, the assassinated journalist, was the one who exposed the story about her heritage. Bedrosyan said Dink might as well have signed his own death certificate when he exposed Gokçen’s Armenian heritage.

“Hrant Dink was persecuted, prosecuted and finally assassinated” as a result of the story, Bedrosyan said.

The audience at the Raffi Bedrosyan lecture at St. James Armenian Church

Dink’s lawyer, Fetiye Çetin, also had Armenian roots. She wrote about it in her groundbreaking book, My Grandmother. Her grandmother, a kerchiefed and pious Muslim woman to all appearances, had told her the truth about being Armenian when Fetiye was 25. She also told her granddaughter about a surviving sister whom the lawyer eventually traced to New Jersey, unfortunately after the sister’s death.

Lost Churches

One of the striking elements of Bedrosyan’s talk was the simple diagrams and heartbreaking photos that illustrated his words. A particular one was a map of the Ottoman Empire before 1915 and now which showed the number of the Armenian Churches there. Before 1915 there were 3,000 churches and 1,000 schools throughout the empire, with more than 300 churches alone in the vicinity of Lake Van.

“All were converted or destroyed,” he said, either turned to mosques in the best-case scenarios, or barracks, stables and in one case even, a house of prostitution.

The largest church of all was Surp Giragos in Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd. Not long after its construction before the Genocide, the massive church’s bell tower was shot off by a cannon as it was taller than the tallest minaret in the town. After the Armenian population of Dikranagerd disappeared, the church continued its steep slide into a decline.

The church had continued to fall into decline and in 2011, during a brief period of freedom by the government, Bedrosyan and a few others banded together to restore the decrepit church back to its former glory. Millions of dollars were raised and in October 2011, the church opened with massive service and concert, during which Bedrosyan played. More than 4,000 came, Bedrosyan said, with many among them hidden Armenians. Until February 2016 the church held services twice a year at Easter and Christmas, with the participation of an ever-growing number of Armenians from Turkey visiting. However, with the increased agitation by Kurds against their mistreatment by the government, the armed forces trained their weapons on Diyarbakir, reducing much of the region into rubble, with the church another casualty.

Now, the church which was so lovingly restored and provided happy celebrations to so many has reverted back to ruins. While Bedrosyan said the structure is still sound, the interior of the church has been gutted, with the pews upended and put in front of the windows and strewn garbage and the smell of urine everywhere.

Hidden Armenians and Project Rebirth

Finding out you are Armenian in Turkey is not always easy. It is a country where the word “Armenian” is still hurled as an insult and where a Muslim Turkish heritage is needed to for civil service jobs. Still, many hidden Armenians have embraced their heritage.

It is precisely this group that Bedrosyan has taken under his wing. He started Project Rebirth, which helps Armenians who either recently or earlier found out they are Armenian on one or both sides, to explore what their ethnicity means.

“These people still show courage at the risk of losing their jobs, with some even risking losing their families,” Bedrosyan said. Among them are doctors, engineers, lawyers and teachers.

He showed many slides of the groups he has taken to Armenia with the support of the Diaspora Ministry in Armenia for the past several years, with several opting to get Christened in Echmiadzin.

(The Istanbul Patriarchate forbade any more conversions in Echmiadzin, suggesting that it, not Echmiadzin, had control over its subjects.)

He praised the reception the group got in Armenia not only from everyday folks but from the government and the church.

Among those was one man named Selim who was very interested in finding out about his Armenian heritage was so immersed in his identity that the following year he greeted the Rebirth group as a tour guide.

Another two visitors converted to Christianity and faced a lot of difficulties because of this decision. One, a woman, was married to a devout Muslim man and worried about her marriage but said she felt she had to do that to satisfy the deathbed wish of her father.

All these cases, Bedrosyan said, raise interesting questions: “Who is an Armenian? Do you have to be Christian to be an Armenian?”

He also showed videos from Armenian TV covering the group’s visits to Armenia.

During an enthusiastic question-and-answer after the talk, Bedrosyan spoke about the online registry briefly put out by the government. Because of the extreme interest of people, the site collapsed. However, it created a lot of difficulty, including for some hard-core Armenian haters who found out to their dismay and subsequent depression that they were Armenian.

Bedrosyan said that based on official Turkish calculations that there were at least 200,000 Armenian orphans left after 1915, with at least another 100,000 people who converted to Islam to save themselves from death, there are more than 2 million people with Armenian ethnicity in Turkey today.

Starting in the past couple of years, after the repression by the government began in Turkey, instead of trips to Armenian, Project Rebirth uses its funds to help the hidden Armenians.

These hidden Armenians are different from Hamshens, who live in the northeast of Turkey. They are treated as if a separate ethnic group, though of course, they are Armenians who were converted to Islam and isolated to form an insular community, some as early as after the destruction of Ani. In fact, he said, the Hamshens do not realize that the language they speak is Armenian as the official line is that they speak a dialect of central Asian Turkish.

Bedrosyan said with an amused expression that he was debating with one Hamshen man, in Armenian, that the language the latter was speaking was not Armenian. Others were shocked many years back when the trial of Levon Ekmekjian, who was the sole survivor of an ASALA attack at the Ankara airport in 1981, was broadcast live and he acted as his own attorney and spoke in Armenian. Many Hamshen were shocked, thinking Ekmekjian was one of them.

Bedrosyan was introduced by Aram Arkun, the executive director of the Tekeyan Cultural Association. Arkun, whose father hailed from Turkey, added some anecdotes of his own about Turkification.

Bedrosyan is a civil engineer and concert pianist, living in Toronto, Canada. He has donated concert and CD proceedings to infrastructure projects in Armenia and Karabakh, in which he has also participated as an engineer. He helped organize the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church and the first Armenian reclaim of church properties in Anatolia after 1915. He gave the first piano concert in the Surp Giragos Church since 1915.

He hails from Istanbul and has called Toronto home for more than 40 years.

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