Along with the many high points experienced during the historic Armenia trip of the 80 “hidden Armenians” from Turkey, there were also a few low points. The highs included warm welcomes by both Armenian government officials and common people on the street, emotional triumphs at Sardarabad, feelings of grief at the Genocide Memorial and Museum, new-found friendships, accomplishments like spelling the alphabet during Armenian-language classes, and simply being able to order food in Armenian at a restaurant. However, I want to point out a few of the lows our hidden Armenians encountered—all related to baptism.
From our group, two girls from Dersim and a young man from Diyarbakir wished to be baptized. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, their wish did not come true.
In recent days, the Armenian media—both in the Armenian Diaspora and in Armenia—ran headline news and opinion pieces on this topic. Various individuals gave press conferences; people opined on TV; statements were released by the church, government, diasporan organizations, and political parties; and heated debates on social media argued both for and against the decision to refuse the baptisms.
As the organizer of the group whose three members wished to be baptized, and as the designated godfather—or “gnkahayr”—for these baptisms, I would like to provide a first-hand account of what really happened, why it happened, and what we should do to avoid such scandals in the future.
One may recall that during the trip I organized last year for the 50 hidden Armenians from Diyarbakir to Armenia, we witnessed the baptisms of a man and a woman in Etchmiadzin. The man was a teacher in a public school in Diyarbakir. Because Christians are not allowed to work in the public sector in Turkey—not even as a garbage collector, let alone a teacher—he took a great risk by converting to Christianity. He was prepared for it; and I am happy to report that he is still employed as a teacher. This year, he brought his son to Armenia to extend,to the next generation, this process of returning to one’s Armenian roots. The woman baptized last year, on the other hand, had an even greater challenge. Her husband, a devout Muslim Kurd, had forbidden her from taking such a step. She nevertheless decided to convert to Christianity to keep her promise to her hidden Armenian father, who had asked her to become a Christian Armenian on his deathbed. I am also pleased to report that she and her husband are still happily married, and are now bravely facing the challenge of how to raise their child together—whether as an Armenian, a Kurd, a Christian, or a Muslim.
Therefore, this year, when three members of our group approached me with their wish to be baptized, I thought—perhaps naively—that I could again go ahead and arrange the baptisms for the day we visited Etchmiadzin. The two Dersimtsi girls would take the names Anahit and Nairi, and the Dikranagerdtsi man from Diyarbakir would become Madteos Paramaz. One of the Dersim girls had a brother who was already baptized last year. The Dikranagerdtsi man was a distant relative of the family involved in the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Church in Diyarbakir.
Unfortunately, the baptisms weren’t allowed to happen either in Etchmiadzin, or in the Khor Virab Church the next day, or in Sourp Hovhannes Church in Yerevan the following day. The explanations given to us were as varied as the clerics involved. Some said we should have applied in writing months in advance; our applications would have then been reviewed by a religious council. Others said we should have brought a letter from the Istanbul Acting Patriarch Archbisop Aram Atesyan, granting permission for the baptisms. One cleric suggested that the candidates must visit Armenia at least three times before becoming eligible. An even more preposterous suggestion came from a cleric who wondered why we didn’t go to the churches in Turkey, since those wishing to be baptized are all from Turkey, instead of causing headaches for him and his superiors. I didn’t bother telling him that although there are churches in Istanbul, no churches are left in historic Armenia except the one we reconstructed in Diyarbakir.
Overall, these clerics seemed to be unprepared for dealing with the baptism requests and had to make endless calls to their superiors for a decision, which either did not come or was ultimately negative. They still lead us on, however, saying that by tomorrow, there might be a positive decision. So, each day—with our hopes high, after buying the required towels, crosses, and headscarves for the girls—we would face renewed disappointment. Even the intervention of the Minister of Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan did not achieve the desired outcome.
An even more upsetting development was the zeal of critics who used this incident to launch misguided attacks. Rather than criticize the decision itself or the persons who made the decision, individuals began appearing at press conferences or on TV, or writing articles in newspapers, attacking the Armenian Church, the Ministry of Diaspora, and the government in general. One organization called the Republic of Western Armenia went as far as issuing fictitious citizenship and identification cards with the baptized names printed on them, and displayed the cards with their fictitious flag, names, and photos at press conferences and on TV. It seems that these people didn’t realize (or didn’t care) that the two Dersim girls and the Diyarbakir man would be returning to Turkey, that they would be continuing to live among Muslim Turks and Kurds, with their names paraded on a fictitious republic’s citizenship cards. Do they have the right to jeopardize the lives of these already endangered persons? For that matter, do any of these opinion makers, who pass along all sorts of judgment in the media, care about the emotions of these three young people who had made such a personal decision as changing their faith, their religion?
The hidden Armenians have no control over their ethnic roots or their genetic identity—they were given no choice. They were born as Armenians, even though the fact that they are Armenians was not revealed to them until later in life. Some of them have now made a conscious decision to return to their ethnic roots. But changing one’s religion by converting to Christianity is an entirely different matter. No one is born with a religion—Christian or Muslim. Religion is not a genetic identity but a faith acquired by personal choice and through family. If someone has made the decision to become Christian through baptism, there should be no individual, no institution, and no force to prevent that from happening—especially in the case of the hidden Armenians, who are taking a risk by first revealing their Armenian identity, and then by converting to Christianity.
If the reason for these increasingly difficult barriers to prevent baptisms is fear of abuse, there should be ways of dealing with them quickly and without delay. Sure, there could be some Muslim Turks or Kurds just pretending to be hidden Armenians. There could be others who have no intention of becoming Christian Armenian and who are getting baptized to gain some sort of advantage, such as employment or a way out of Turkey and into Europe or the Americas. However, these exceptions should not lead to draconian rules and regulations for all those who genuinely want to become Christian. Moreover, why do we have godfathers? The role of the godfather is to assure the Armenian Church that the person being baptized is eligible and worthy of baptism, and there should be no excuse or delay by the cleric for further investigation.
The objective of Project Rebirth is to help the hidden Armenians think, feel, and act as Armenians. Our work will continue regardless of the barriers placed before us by certain people. Whether these hidden Armenians become Christian or not, they have decided to return to their Armenian roots, and we will continue to encourage them. It would be ideal if the Armenian Church would also fulfill its duty in encouraging them to become Christian Armenians. But if not, it is still alright. After all, Armenians were Armenians for centuries before they adopted Christianity.