In this interview, Gafur Türkay provides an update on the recent destructions committed by the Turkish army in the historic downtown of Diyarbakir, a city which, before 1915, was home to many Armenians. He also stresses the importance the the restoration of the Armenian church of Surp Giragos in 2011, which is considered as a haven of peace for visitors and has been immediately made their own by the small community of Islamized Armenians in the area. The ” Infidel Quarter ” has now been annihilated. Is only left standing the Surp Giragos church whose interior has nonetheless suffered important damages. Gafur Türkay also discusses the question of Islamized Armenians in Diyarbakir and around, as well as the many identity issues they are faced with today. Finally, he lists the difficulties met by some Islamized Armenians who decide to get baptized.
REPAIR : How would Islamized Armenians living in Diyarbakır and the region describe their identities?
Gafur Türkay : For us to understand this we need to look at who those Islamized Armenians are. We are talking about third, forth generation that survived accidentally the Armenian genocide. These people who were a community with their own culture were disconnected from it, their religion changed. They were Islamized, they had no ground where they could keep their language alive and they kept living with other languages. What we call Islamized Armenians are the third and fourth generation. They were unfortunately part of assimilation for centuries. These people had to live a life that didn’t belong to them, all fragmented. They felt the need to hide their Armenian identity due to difficulties they had to face up today. The Armenian word had always been used in this country in a pejorative sense to humiliate people. They never had a chance to live with their own identity nor their own culture. In order to get rid of that “bad” Armenian opinion of people, some tried to mask their identity by praying and worshiping more than would worship a Muslim. They had to continue their lives on these territories under Muslim identity in agony and difficulty and this for centuries.
Did this situation started to change after a certain point?
Of course when you talk of a community assimilated for three-four generation, there is some type of acceptance. One feels obliged to continue life with familiarization with this religion, language and culture that don’t belong to them. When you are resigned to live in another culture, be it by force or without force, it is not that easy to consider going back to the culture of their grandfathers after a century. But there is a fact: while these people were hiding themselves, Muslims didn’t allow them to forget their identities. Let’s say in a neighborhood, there is a disagreement between an Islamized Armenian and a Muslim, the Muslim would not abstain from reminding the other one his/her identity, just for tyrannizing them. Therefore these people were Islamized and they disconnected from their own culture and they never let them forget they were Armenians. Now there are some people accepting their Armenian identity within Islam and some other fully integrated Islam. Some are in a situation where they are ashamed of being Armenian and don’t talk about Armenian identity and react whenever the subject is on table. But among those who have higher education level and those who are from left wing, there are recently some groups facing their own reality. Some of them re-appropriate or want to re-appropriate their own identity and some say “I am a Muslim but Armenian”. The assimilation process was so strong during the century that people are devastated. How many are those who got back their Armenian identity? When they ask me this, I say, “It is a drop in the lake”.
Did the renovation of Saint Giragos church in 2011 to become a place that can be visited by people change anything?
There were many historical building that belonged to Armenians centuries ago in this region. The assimilation continued with the destroying of the cultural texture. When you place a structure belonging to Armenians such as Saint Giragos at its own place, you create a huge positive atmosphere among the Islamized Armenians. People came and visited it many times; they embraced it.
This was a place for people who were in search of their identity. There were no such other places before the renovation right?
In the region and in Diyarbakır, there were no places where they could find a piece they could relate themselves with, there is a huge destruction in that sense. Saint Giragos is the biggest Armenian Church in the Middle East region. Here we talk of a place that had a serious mission in the past. During the Armenian Genocide in 1915 all Diyarbakır Armenians were killed. Those who survived from the surrounding cities found shelter in Saint Giragos. In that sense Saint Giragos is not only a church. When it was renovated, people came a lot; they embraced it.
According to your observations, what were the main needs and requests of those who went to the church, among those who got intouch with you?
Those who came there were before anything else, people who were injured with this century long devastation and we felt that they found themselves there. We heard a lot this during our conversations: “I feel very peaceful here.” When we asked them what they meant by that, they said they didn’t perceive this in a religious sense, that they found themselves there, that that was a place that belonged to them and that they made peace with themselves. When I asked them why they cried, I saw people saying, “My grandfather was baptized here, such person got married here” and grieving, remembering their roots and past.
I remember you organizing breakfasts once a month at Saint Giragos.
Some Muslim Armenian friends would not come and pray so we were organizing events with more social aspect. Once a month people would come together, a breakfast table was set. Those who were coming were not attending the religious ceremony but they were attending the breakfast. Saint Giragos was more than a church. We had a piano recital for example. Why piano? Well in the past Armenian community used to have piano concerts once a month. And also when you look at the inventory list of Saint Giragos in 1915, you’d see a piano belonging to the church. Because of such a past of the church we wanted to organize piano recitals in memoriam. A century ago they carried society’s social needs to the church. That’s what we tried to do in order to come together with the Islamized Armenians; we organized breakfasts and lunches.
You were also organizing some cultural and historic trips and started Armenian language courses. But you were saying you didn’t have enough information sources while you did those activities.
As you would appreciate, we are people that were disconnected from that culture for a century. That devastation and assimilation created such an atmosphere that on one hand we were trying to do something and on the other hand we were learning. In the past, there were in Diyarbakır many Armenian schools teaching until high school level. A century later we opened Armenian language course in Diyarbakır. We tried to learn Armenian. We organized picnics and trips. We went to Harput for instance. Why Harput? Not because we wanted to travel there, we went there because we wanted to discuss, think about the link of this place with the past. We organized another tour to Çüngüş. We visited a canyon where people were massacred during the genocide in Çüngüş. We went two years in a row to Armenia with a group of 50 people. We had the opportunity to see in person the structures in Armenia and meet with people.
Did you organize these activities according to the demands?
Let’s say we initiated it. There were some demands and some common points during the discussions, but it was mainly about what we could bring to those people disconnected from their culture, what they could see or read or experience.
Those activities have stopped as of last September 2015. Due to conflicts and curfew, you didn’t even have access to the church until recently. What is the actual situation?
We have not been able to go there or organize any event since last August. There was a program foreseen for August 15, 2015, but couldn’t be done. Due to the incidents, people from abroad could not come for the program so we had to cancel it. Since that day, due to the region’s situation we haven’t organized any activity. We are talking about a region where the curfew had been on for almost 6 months and Saint Giragos is at the heart of that region. I, myself, have been able to go inside the church for instance. But of course what we have seen there was very significant. The city was all destroyed. There were no streets, no neighborhood. All destroyed, houses, shops… We came upon a flat area. The church’s shops were destroyed. There were no damage at the main block, the roof or the bell tower; they only drilled the wall from one side. But inside the church the damage and loss are significant. For instance the place where we were selling souvenirs is devastated. Other objects, accessories, materials were either broken or disappeared or damaged. Inside the church was used as a base, they installed a stove.
The church was used as a base by the security forces?
Probably, but as it is a closed book, we can’t know who used it, who damaged it. For the moment it is entirely under the security forces control.
Can the church be reached right now?
There is still no access. We were able to go inside with a dispensation.
What kind of feelings you have when you see the neighborhood destroyed?
We have this feeling of devastation. This neighborhood was a place where Armenians lived a century ago; maybe 95% of the population was Armenian. With the church’s renovation that lifestyle was no more a memory but part of their conscious. Unfortunately nothing is left now. The church is there but all the houses that are destroyed were Armenian stone houses. Mıgırdiç Margosyan has a book named “Infidel Neighborhood” talking about this place. A friend of ours used to joke with us before all these incidents started, “The infidel has gone leaving behind the neighborhood” he was saying. Yes the infidel left already but now there isn’t any neighborhood either. People were killed a century ago and now their place had been destroyed.
Is there a development regarding the expropriation in the district of Sur including the Saint Giragos Church also as published in the Official Gazette last march?
Applications for the cancelation of expropriation have been placed and are presently being processed by the court. Various institutions made applications and as the foundation we have also applied. The court is not yet finalized. No actual action has yet been taken, so all stay as it is. However when the ministers and high officials visit Diyarbakır, they all verbally announce that the district will be restored and no party will be victim. Actually the district is totally ruined so it is hard to tell what will be restored. Again it has been verbally declared that the church will not be expropriated. When the prime minister and the ministers come to Diyarbakır, they verbally announce that places of worship cannot be and will not be expropriated.
However all these are only verbal declarations and therefore are non-binding, right?
Verbal, of course. From a legal point of view the picture is very clear, they took possession of it through the process of “urgent expropriation”.
Some shops that were owned by the church which you said were demolished, were being illegally occupied by people and you were planning to take action or were already taking action to retrieve them. Now they are non-restorable and ruined let alone retrievable?
These properties were already under occupation. Now there is physically nothing left to retrieve. As it is, its land is owned by the state. The government says that they will not victimize us regarding this issue. But as of this moment we do not know what will be done.
We talked about the search of those who wanted to return to their Armenian identity. Those who want to become priests for example, what kind of difficulties awaits them?
There are some formalities and rituals demanded by the patriarchy one needs to follow. There is a 6 months religious training process. In the past, we have done two baptism by consulting the Patriarchate in Armenia. The Patriarchate has some rules. They say, “nobody needs to get baptized in Armenia beyond our knowledge”. ” “If there is demand”, they say,” We will do here what needs to be done”. A person with such a request is first required to go and change the section about his/her religion as written on the ID, s/he needs to get written Christian on the ID’s religion section. In the past, a court decision was necessary for this however now it can be done at the civil registry office. These rules are normal. Patriarchate says ” Why baptize someone I do not know, furthermore that person might even not be Christian?” They are right from that point of view. On the other hand, the person with such a request can sometimes also be the member of a family that has been Islamized four generations ago, a family whose identity is well known by everybody. So if a person has such a request to return to his/her original identity, this can be through following some formalities.
Can it be the problem that the faith cannot stay within the boundaries of private life in Turkey? A person, in Turkey, cannot say ” let me not change the religion section of my ID but be a Christian faith in my own private life”.
In the past, in the religion section of IDs it used to write ” Armenian” or ” Syriac”. That is no more the case, now it is just written ” Christian”. The Patriarchate is right from their own point of view, however it is a distressed process for the people who have been disconnected from their identities for a century.
If you can have access again to the church and restart your activities, would you again consider organizing activities such as Armenian language courses? And are you getting any support from Armenian institutions in Istanbul?
We will most probably organize again such activities. We want to learn our language, our culture and everything. This issue has two aspects; first is the economical aspect. Organizing such an activity is a costly issue. However the most problematic part is to find a teacher who can live in Diyarbakır or who is available to travel regularly to teach. We are having a hard time with resolving this issue. It is difficult to bring a teacher who grew up and lives in Istanbul to Diyarbakır. The situation of the Armenian schools in Istanbul is also not very bright; the number of teachers is already not sufficient. But having such problems does not mean we will give up. We will strive to re-start the lessons.