“Cut my branches, burn my leaves, but you will never touch my roots.”
Nothing was more evident in my mind this past week than this beautiful quotation by Vache Thomassian. I was fortunate to attend a public lecture sponsored by NAASR and AGBU New England. The speaker was Raffi Bedrosyan from Canada, and his subject was the emergence of “Hidden Armenians” in western Armenia. Raffi was introduced by George Aghjayan, a respected community leader and himself a trailblazer in the area of Armenian genealogy. Mr. Bedrosyan, a civil engineer by training and a well known concert pianist, has dedicated his life to helping the hundreds and now thousands of descendants of those “who were left behind” and were raised as Kurds or Turks, but retained and passed on to the succeeding generation their Armenian identity. This is a fascinating current event that shakes the foundation of much of our traditional thinking. Before we explore the implications of this new reality, it is important to acknowledge how blessed we are to have people such as Raffi and George who have taken on traditional challenges with contemporary methods for the benefit of literally thousands of Armenians to build a stronger identity. George’s work has helped countless rebuild broken family trees and find new connections, while Raffi has assisted in thousands of our brethren in their emergence from the shadows.
During the Armenian Genocide thousands of orphaned children were stolen by the Turkish government and placed in Turkish state orphanages. Their evil intent continued with these children who parents were murdered. Although some of these children were freed by Armenians and missionaries, most remained under Turkish control. Their objective was to forcibly convert these children to Islam, raise them as Turks and marry them off to Turkish spouses. They blended into obscurity emerging with a forced identity. One of the largest contingents was under the command of the vicious General Kazim Karabekir, the commander of the Eastern front (western Armenia). Of the 60,000 orphans he controlled, 4,000 males were selected and trained as brutal Turkish troops. The girls were sold as slaves, married off or served households. These and others who were forcibly converted to Turks and Kurds are the basis for the miracle called “the hidden Armenians.” Incredibly, these survivors privately retained their identity and passed it discreetly to succeeding generations. This was no small task. The Republic of Turkey has retained its racist core from the Ottoman Empire against the Armenian people. The hidden Armenians live on our stolen historical lands. The environment in the “eastern provinces” is more dangerous as ultra-nationalists and the military operate in the rural areas. Bedrosyan has been a leader in supporting the emergence of the descendants of those who were unaccounted for during and after the genocide.
Consider the miracle in Diyarbekir (Dikranagerd). Raffi was one of the driving forces behind the restoration of the historic Soorp Giragos church. The church foundation led the effort to raise funds locally and from the diaspora to renovate and deconsecrated the church in 2011. It began to serve as a magnet for local hidden Armenians, and each gathering attracted more people. Raffi shared a story that they had prepared 300 choregs for a celebration, and 600 people arrived. The next time they made 600 choregs and over 1000 of our brethren shared in the joy. In the few short years of the revival, they have started Armenian language classes, built a communications support network and organized trips to Armenia.
The local Kurdish-dominated municipal government has been very supportive. The base has grown to other areas through social media. All of this came to a crashing halt in 2016 with the Turkish military campaign against the Kurdish PKK which heavily impacted the civilian populations. The Turks used the expropriation law to confiscate St. Giragos and several other local properties. The Turkish military used the church as a command center, but showed little respect for the church. After vacating, the church was left heavily damaged and desecrated. The church foundation fought in the Turkish courts to regain control and were eventually successful. They are now in the process of reconstructing to reopen the complex. Raffi has given a few concerts in the church to celebrate its miraculous revitalization as a community gathering place. I am sure he will give another one to celebrate their amazing resiliency. When the military attacks stopped, all activities, the language lessons and trips to Armenia ceased. An inspiring sign of their determination is evident in the fact that Raffi has arranged for these brave people to continue their language studies online through the AGBU Virtual College. This is a story that reflects the best of our core values.
We should never underestimate the courage of these Armenians. Since the genocide, Turkey has never been a welcoming environment for Armenians and other Christians. Institutional discrimination remains. The foundation of racism in their society is reflected in the fact that the word “Armenian” is used by Turks to insult others. Several years ago, then President Gul, was publicly reported to be part Armenian. It became an attempt by his political rivals to discredit him. In addition to the ethnicity identity, it is dangerous for these people to abandon the Islamic faith and convert back to Armenian Christianity. There is also the risk to their extended family if they are “outed” as Armenians. When considering these realities, it is an astonishing story when we learn of the thousands who have come forward in some way to reclaim their identity. As Raffi has pointed out, this incredible reality carries the burden of two questions for our scattered nation: What is an Armenian and who gets to decide? The implications of the emergence of “hidden Armenians” present new challenges—some of which have challenged the foundation of the definition of our identity. We can choose to ignore these descendants of the last indigenous survivors. This is the simplest response and, in my view, the most inappropriate.
The church ties the definition of an Armenian to ethnicity and religious affiliation. Is it possible for an Armenian not to be a Christian?
For a moment, consider that some of these now third and fourth generations may be descendants of a relative who was assumed to have perished in the genocide, but actually survived and was forcibly converted. Would you turn your back on a relative who simply has developed in a different environment? Challenging questions that will expand our thinking…if we allow that entry. Most reasonable people will answer the question of “what is an Armenian” with an opinion of self-identity. In other words, if you consider yourself an Armenian, then that becomes your reality. This is particularly important in the diaspora where choice comes into play. The question of “who decides” is more complex. The church ties the definition of an Armenian to ethnicity and religious affiliation. Is it possible for an Armenian not to be a Christian? Before we scoff at the question, consider that we have ethnic Armenians who have embraced Buddhism or atheism. Is that any different?
There is no simple answer. What I do know is that these are important questions for our nation to embrace. Today, the church will not lend any real support to this matter unless these Armenians are willing to convert to Christianity. Some have, but many, for reasons previously stated, wish to connect with ethnicity, but not the Christian faith.
How will we in the diaspora and in Armenia react to this? Will we extend and open our arms to welcome them into the family and respect the constraints they live with or will we allow this incredible opportunity to pass? Why is this an incredible opportunity? From 1915 to 1923, the Turks executed a policy to exterminate Armenians from our traditional homeland. They failed. Not only did survivors build a powerful diaspora, but the dream is now a fact. The land we call western Armenia, from which we were brutally evicted, has thousands of Armenians hidden among the Kurds and Turks, who are discovering their Armenian identity. What was thought to have been absent of indigenous Armenians, we now understand to have thousands in various stages of identity. In our quest for lost western Armenia, we have three points of connection: our personal lineage, our physical monuments (churches and properties) and finally the people who live on the land. For decades, we have suspected that survivors were hidden, but not entirely lost. That has now been confirmed.
The questions remain. Is it appropriate for the church to remain aloof from this opportunity unless they convert? If the church is the vanguard of education and love, then should they not extend a hand? At a minimum, shouldn’t the church look at this as an investment for the future? As individuals and organizations, we have a window to assist in their connection. As Bedrosyan has stated, a church such as St. Giragos, operates as a “magnet” for those who have been hidden but need a safe connection. As more emerge in western Armenia, there may be opportunities to create other “magnets.” This is almost too astonishing to internalize. We are truly living in very interesting times. Armenia has been free for 28 years (which is ten times longer than the First Republic which was the first period of nationhood since 1375). Despite the campaign of extermination, denial and racism, some roots have survived in western Armenia. They are beginning to bear fruit. We must decide if we will gently help the trees blossom. After 100 years, we know the light is always stronger than darkness.