By Sarah Mac Donald - 02 March, 2015
Historian uses archives to shed new light on the genocide which saw one and a half million Armenians 'eradicated' by the Ottoman Empire.
The last ten years have seen “major changes” within Turkey providing “new opportunities” of talking to Turkish society about one of the most harrowing episodes in its history – the Armenian genocide, a historian said in Dublin last week.
April 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide and to mark the centenary of this tragedy, the Armenian Church community in Ireland has organised a number of events.
The first of these events was a public lecture at the Irish School of Ecumenics in Trinity College, Dublin last week by the historian Ara Sarafian who has specialised in late Ottoman and modern Armenian history.
Dr Sarafian is a founding member of the Gomidas Institute, an independent academic organisation based in London which carries out research and publishes English translations of Armenian texts related to the Armenian genocide.
His lecture was entitled Bearing Witness: The United States and the Armenian Genocide 1915-17, and it focused on the United States’ role in documenting the 1915 genocide.
The decision taken by the Young Turks in the spring of 1915 to expel the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire set into motion a state-sponsored campaign that resulted in the deaths of up to one and a half million Armenians.
It eradicated the Armenian community from Anatolia in south eastern Turkey.
In his lecture, Ara Sarafian offered a case study of Armenians in Kharpert (Harput) in 1915 to show the impact of this eradication programme.
Referencing Talaat Pasha’s report on the Armenian Genocide and comparing it with the 1913 Armenian census as well as American missionary Henry Riggs’ account of the genocide in Kharpert in ‘Days of Tragedy in Armenia: Personal Experiences in Harpoot, 1915-1917’ Dr Sarafian built a picture of the destruction and exodus of the Armenian population and the loss of Armenian infrastructure.
Talaat Pasha’s report suggests that of 70,000 Armenians in the Kharpert area in 1914 just over 2,000 were documented in the deportation zones by 1917.
There were practically no Armenians in Der Zor, the destination of most deportees.
From his study of Armenian and Ottoman sources, Ara Sarafian, who is himself a Cypriot Armenian, showed that at the time of the genocide, 35-40% of the population (40,000) in the Kharpert area was Armenian with the remainder being Kurdish or Turkish.
According to Sarafian, today this region is composed of approximately 80% Kurds and 20% Turks.
There were many Americans living in Kharpert up until the start of World War I, including a number of Protestant missionaries who had settled there some time after the 1850s.
From the 1890s, the US State Department had a consulate in Kharpert which was abandoned in 1917 with the onset of World War I.
Rev Henry Riggs was a third generation American whose father was born in Turkey. As well as English, he spoke Armenian and Turkish. He was one of up to two dozen American families living in the region at the time of the genocide.
Rev Riggs manuscript was given to a US government commission investigating various aspects of World War I, including the destruction of Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire.
In it he recounts how Armenians were rounded up and killed by the authorities. Convoys of deportees were marched out of the city of Kharpert to the desert of Der Zor and were either killed en route or they died due to the horrendous circumstances they endured.
He also refers to eyewitness accounts of mass graves of Armenians outside Kharpert (Harpoot). These included the local American consul Leslie A. Davis and his colleague Dr Henry Atkinson.
Up until recent times it was a crime in Turkey to discuss the genocide, which the government still denies although it is increasingly admitting that some terrible massacres occurred.
Speaking after his lecture, Dr Sarafian said that over the last ten years there have been major changes within Turkey and there are now new opportunities of talking to Turkish society about this sensitive issue.
“I don’t shy away from difficult questions; I engage Turkish deniers within Turkey, so I don’t feel weak but I think that the right thing now and the brave thing now is to work for peace because the opportunities are there,” he commented to CatholicIreland.net.
He continued, “There is a clear direction of change and if we are part of that process we can shape it and accelerate it rather than just wait for things to happen because then they may not happen,” he warned.
When he was thirteen, Turkey invaded Cyprus and his family, who are Armenian, was forced to flee like many Greek Cypriot families.
He is now based in London where he has his own family.
“I am a refugee from Cyprus; in 1974 we lost our home. So I grew up being very anti Turkish and as a consequence I wanted to learn more about the Turks for the wrong reasons. I ended up going to Ankara to learn Turkish and I started teaching there to pay my way.”
However, living there and making Turkish friends his “ideas changed because I saw that it was much more complex – I realised we had more in common than I had thought”.
Bringing an academic insight and having Turkish friends “helped me to come to a new approach to the subject – a more humane and truthful one”.
He believes that Turkey under the AKP is changing. “The acid test for me is whether I have a voice in Turkey, whether I am allowed to work in Turkey and the answer is yes. I do commemorative events, I study there and I speak my mind.”
“There is an opportunity to resolve some of the issues. Yes the Turkish state has an official position – and it is defending its own interests as it sees it and politicians follow that for electoral purposes which is why they can’t make too many concessions. But there is a clear direction of change and if we are part of that process, we can shape it and accelerate it rather than just wait for things to happen because then they may not happen.”
The history of the Armenian Church is almost as old as Christianity itself as according to tradition two apostles of Jesus, St Thaddeus and St Bartholomew brought the Gospel to Armenia during the second half of the first century.
The Mother See of the Armenian Orthodox Church is based at Etchmiadzin in Armenia.
In Ireland there is only one Armenian parish and it is based in Dublin. It was established in March 2011.
The Dublin Parish is tied to the Armenian Apostolic Church in UK under the supervision of the Primate of the Armenian Church based in London.
The Dublin Parish meets and holds parish community activities in Taney Parish (Church of Ireland) in Dundrum.
Each year the Armenian Church and nation has a special day of prayer to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were killed by the Ottoman Turks between 1915–1923.
It is a National Remembrance day for all Armenians worldwide.
The 100th anniversary Remembrance Service will take place in Taney Parish on Sunday 26 April at 3pm.
Church leaders will be invited to this service. In November a Genocide Memorial will be erected in Christ Church Cathedral.
On April 24 and 25 there will be a photographic exhibition in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown and a ceremony will take place on the evening of 24 April during which 100 lanterns will be released representing 100 years of the unrecognised genocide.
More information: www.armenians.ie