Prof. Tessa Hofmann

Covid, Genocide and Orthodox Believers: A Commentary

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By Tessa Hofmann

I just read Harut Sassounian’s article “Patriarch of Istanbul Spreads Falsehoods About Covid, Under the Guise of Religion” (Armenian Mirror-Spectator, 27 December 2021). The article refers to a sermon by the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch of Istanbul, Sahak Mashalian, in October last year. At that time, (if he was accurately quoted) the patriarch warned his congregants against covid vaccinations, which he related to the apocalyptic visions of the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation. In it, there is talk of a beast that forces people to wear a “mark” on their forehead or right arm. With this mark or chip, the patriarch hinted, complete control would be exercised over those vaccinated.

The words of the church leader shocked me, but I was not surprised. In Germany, about one-fifth of the population belongs to the vaccination skeptics or even opponents. This anti-vaccination segment of the population is made up of very heterogeneous segments: middle-class esotericists including anthroposophists, followers of alternative medicine, die-hard conspiracy theorists, but also neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists. Among Germany’s immigrant communities, including a large proportion of those of Turkish and Arab descent, vaccination skepticism is equally widespread; among other things, there are fears of infertility as a result of vaccination.

There are also vaccination opponents and vaccination skeptics among Armenians. Since valid empirical studies on the number and motives of Armenian vaccination opponents are lacking, I can only draw on personal experience. For around the same time, in October 2021, I had my very personal and no less drastic experience with Armenian vaccination opponents. At that time, the Working Group Recognition – Against Genocide, for International Understanding, which I co-founded and chair, organized a three-part series of events on the theme Berlin Writes Legal History: From Assassination to the United Nations Genocide Convention (see Armenian Mirror-Spectator, November 27, 2021, pp. 6, 20). Public health regulations prescribed that, if these events were held indoors, participants had to be vaccinated or recovered from a covid infection within the past six months.

Because of this restriction, we were criticized by an Istanbul-born Armenian who, in his Facebook comment, compared the exclusion of the unvaccinated with the extermination of Jews in the “Third Reich” and, as a descendant of Armenian Genocide victims, now saw himself victimized again — by a human rights organization based in Germany. The comparison is also extremely popular among non-Armenian vaccination opponents in Germany. It represents an unacceptable trivialization of the Shoah: The victims of the industrial-scale extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany were never asked if they wanted to be Jews. The Nazi regime declared them Jews based on its arbitrary racist definitions. A “non-Aryan” grandparent was enough for discrimination. Today’s vaccination opponents in European constitutional states, on the other hand, define themselves as vaccination opponents and certainly run no risk of being murdered for their decision.

Is it relevant that our Armenian critic was from Istanbul? A fellow human rights activist committed to recognizing the Ottoman genocide, who became an unvaccinated covid victim, was also from Turkey: He had no pre-existing conditions, followed a healthy diet, exercised, and believed that he could therefore forgo vaccination. He contracted the disease from his infected wife. After a tracheotomy in the hospital, he became further infected with multidrug-resistant germs and died at the end of October.

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However, I know Armenian vaccination opponents also among the “hayastantsiner,” as well as among young Pontos Greeks of the fourth post-genocidal generation. Is anti-vaccination more widespread among Orthodox Christians than in secular or Western Church societies? The empirical picture is mixed: In Romania, there seems to be a correlation between the low nationwide vaccination rate of 41.74 percent (first-time vaccinations) and the anti-vaccination attitude of the Orthodox clergy. In Armenia, the rate of initial vaccinations is even lower, at only 32.27%. However, the Catholicos of All Armenians, Garegin II, has clearly distanced himself from the statements of the Istanbul Patriarch and has professed his own vaccination. But in the orthodox EU state of Greece, the rate of first-time vaccinations is 72.42%, almost as high as in largely secular Germany (73 percent).

Epidemics or pandemics have accompanied mankind since the beginning of its history. But for the first time ever, the state has intervened globally and massively in the individual and collective liberties of its citizens. In societies where citizens’ trust in the state has already been shaken for historical or current reasons, this has intensified the public’s fatigue and irritability. In other societies, these reactions appeared for the first time. After two years of Covid regulation, nerves are on edge, especially since governments’ epidemic policies were often inconsistent due to lack of experience. Political decision-makers have also neglected to openly communicate to citizens that they are often in the dark because of the limited knowledge about Covid; and to err is human.

What we do know, however, and were already well aware of, at least in the scientific community, before the Covid outbreak at the end of 2019, was the connection between epidemics, zoonoses and our treatment of nature or our fellow creatures (to put it in terms familiar to Christians).

Rapidly encroaching wildlife habitat, their consumption by humans, and mass farming of so-called livestock — especially cattle, pigs, and poultry — for the “meat industry” have caused Ebola (through the consumption of monkeys in Africa), avian influenza, and most recently SARS CoV-2. U.S. researchers warned years ago that widespread consumption of wildlife in the South of China, including bats and pangolins, could cause a new SARS virus. In 2019, their suspicions became reality. More epidemics or viruses will inevitably follow if we do not draw conclusions and drastically change our lifestyles. Preserving wildlife habitats and at least reducing the billions of livestock are elementary prerequisites for this. And since not everyone is ready for voluntary vegetarianism, a state regulation or increase of meat prices would be a very first step in this direction. In religious terms one might see it as a matter of respecting, instead of violating, the divine order of Creation.

And this is what it is all about: taking responsibility. I expect spiritual leaders, even more than political leaders, to make us aware of the ethical connections between lifestyles and pandemics. Patriarch Mashalian, on the other hand, draws on a widespread, anti-capitalist-tinged conspiracy theory to explain the pandemic, according to which the apocalyptic beast stands for either Bill Gates, George Soros, or similar suspects. One can take one’s pick. By thus shifting the blame, he regrettably deflects attention from the responsibility we all bear for our environment and our fellow creatures. And what falls back on us is not Divine punishment, but the consequence of our own ineptitude.

(Dr. Tessa Hofmann is a scholar of genocide and Armenian studies with numerous publications on Armenian history, culture and current affairs. She has been a human rights activist for ethno-religious minorities in the Middle East, including Turkey, and the South Caucasus for nearly 50 years.)

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