December 2, 2011

The “Marranos” of Armenia


Let’s be clear.  This is not about Jews forcibly converted by the Christians in Armenia, but about Armenian Christians forcibly converted to Islam.  And just as many Jews in 15th Century Spain did not accept forced conversion and clandestinely maintained their true heritage (these were the original “marranos”), we now have Turkish Armenians attempting the same heroic deeds.  I first heard about this from the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation and then set about to find more information that I could share with you.

Diyarbakir is a picturesque city in southeastern Turkey near Syria and Iraq, with 600,000 inhabitants, rich in folklore and famous for its watermelons.  It is on the banks the Tigris River and has become the most important city in the ancient region of Anatolia.  Most of its inhabitants are ethnic Kurds.  It is considered to be the potential capital of Kurdistan, a sovereign country that had been proposed at the end of the First World War, but still remains an repressed and unfulfilled desire of the Kurdish people.  On October 23, an event took place that the press does not seem to have bothered to report widely.

Just hours before the earthquake that shook the area, as if the depths of the earth wanted to send a message of ecstasy, some three thousand people crammed the ancient Armenian cathedral of St. Giragos to inaugurate its magnificent restoration.  It was Sunday and for the first time in many years, and after many desecrations, a solemn religious service was finally held.  The temple was built 350 years ago and is still the largest Armenian Church in the Middle East, but Diyarbakir has been “cleansed” of Armenians.  The event attracted pilgrims from neighboring countries and as well as from Holland, Germany and the United States.  The Armenian, victims of an attempted genocide, now constitute a diaspora that has maintained its historical r, linguistic, religious, culinary and musical, roots

At the end of the mass, the mayor Osman Baydemir addressed the congregation that had filled the cathedral to capacity. In Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish and English, he said, “Welcome to your home! You are not guests here, but at home. “  It was a poignant moment, almost as recognition of the atrocities suffered by Armenians at the beginning of the twentieth century and even earlier.

The cathedral is truly a grand edifice.  It has seven altars, with Gothic columns and arches, and hints of the Romanesque style.  But it was virtually abandoned after the massacres and deportations that started in 1915.  At one time it was used as barracks for the German troops and then became stable and finally a cotton mill.  But irrational hatred was not content with these offenses, and the building was looted with impunity.  Only the columns stood firm, the walls and portions of the vaults.

The journalist Esayat comments that, “When I saw the conditions of the church at those dark times, I never imagined a restoration this impressive.”  Armenian communities around the world covered most the cost and, it must be emphasized, there a significant contribution from the Diyarbakir city council.

And here comes the most wrenching part.  The next day, in a secret ceremony, ten people were baptized in the restored cathedral.  They were Turks who for many generations had continued to consider themselves Armenians and had been forcibly converted to Islam.  Forced conversion was common in the territories of both Islam and Christianity during many sad centuries.  The mountainous and more impregnable part of Armenia had resisted heroically.  They had been the first people to become Christians thanks to the fiery sermons of St. Gregory the Illuminator.  With the Enlightenment the practice of forced conversions was questioned and its momentum slowed.  Even so, according to the Armenian Patriarchate of Istanbul, since 1915, when the genocide began, about 300,000 Armenians had to accept conversion to Sunni or Alawite Islam if they wanted to avoid the massacres or deportation.  If we add to those who were forced to take this step in previous decades or centuries the Patriarchate calculates that there are some half a million Armenians who are officially declared to be Muslims, but who feel that they are really Christians.  They keenly felt the gnawing pain of not being able to recover their faith or traditions.  Although Turkey is officially secular, thanks to the revolution of Kemal Ataturk, for Muslims to abandon their religion are an unforgivable crime.  An Armenian Christian, who has converted to Islam, even under pressure, cannot return to their original faith, because they would become an apostate, a villain, someone who does not deserve any respect or consideration.

“‘I want this cathedral to be always open”, said one of the newly baptized ‘Armenian Marranos’. “It is incredible to be here with people from around the world with whom I share the same origin”.

“It’s like returning from exile”, said another, breaking into tears.

A journalist, who would not give his name, told me that  elderly Armenians who had lived in Diyarbakir before the mass expulsion and pretended to have given up their roots would often come back, looking at their former homes  from the street, walking pas the ruined cathedral and giving free rein to their nostalgia. They all spoke Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian. But no one dared to cross themselves in public.

In many areas of modern Turkey you see the religious pluralism of the best of times, although the governing Islamic party is peeling back some of that.  Within walking distance of the cathedral stands the Chaldean Catholic Church of St. Peter (currently under restoration), a mosque, a Protestant church and a tiny modest synagogue.  The mayor told the pilgrims with his infectious enthusiasm that Diyarbakir will become the Jerusalem of Anatolia.  He even dared to make vague reference to events that began in 1915 and added: “Let our children celebrate together the achievements of the future.”

Unlike the church of Akdamar in the city of Van (“people” in Armenian), which was erected in the tenth century and has become a museum, open only once a year for religious services, the Diyarbakir Cathedral will have a regular mass; there will be concerts and exhibitions.  It will have life.  As much life as the new Marranos, who are now returning to their roots filled with gratitude and hope.

Translation: John Casey, volunteer IRWF NY