Armenians in Turkey: an unextinguished light

To find out how world peace was coming along I rose early this morning (not easy after a New Year’s Eve engaged in one of the marathon rakı and cards sessions of which middle-aged Turks are so fond) to attend mass at the local Armenian church.

That it is possible to write such a sentence is a small miracle. A century ago, the port town of Iskenderun in southern Turkey had a thriving population of Armenians. Today there are just one hundred left – ten of them joined me, bleary-eyed, at mass. Their church, founded in the late nineteenth century, reopened in 2011 having been closed for decades due to the absence of a priest. It owes its resurrection to an earnest young member of the community who, fearful that without a focal point the old traditions would die out, decided to fill the gap, and went to Lebanon and Jerusalem to be trained as a priest. He now ministers to the small church of Iskenderun and the even smaller chapel of a nearby village, the last Armenian settlement in Turkey.

During a break in the three hour-long service, the elderly man sitting next to me introduces himself and asks my business. Within a minute or two, unprompted, he remarks that ‘this country has done terrible things to Christians.’ In 1916, he tells me, his parents had been forced to flee to Iskenderun from the interior. Turkish soldiers were killing Armenians in the surrounding region, and in anticipation of the troops’ arrival the people of his village had begun to join in. This was the beginning of a series of events described by Armenians and most of the world as genocide and by Turks, unconvincingly, as war. At least a million people are thought to have died in the ensuing months. Iskenderun itself was not immune to the killings, the old man says, but because it was a French protectorate at the time it provided a safer haven than much of the rest of the country.

Today the town continues to be a welcoming home to its small Armenian population. The priest tells me that he and his congregants have no problems with their fellow townspeople, nearly all of whom are Turks, and that Iskenderun is a fine place for Armenians to live. In recent months the oafish political posturing of Sarkozy has dominated the Armenia-Turkey debate, but as we enter what is likely to be a turbulent new year the resilience and endurance of Iskenderun’s Armenian community tells a more positive, constructive story. A Happy New Year to all.