Last October, the U.S. Congress caused an international firestorm by considering a resolution that labeled the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks "genocide." But the resolution stalled on the House floor, averting a diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and Turkey.
The incident serves to spotlight complexities in American-Turkish relations that are compounded by long-standing appeals for justice. In 1915, 2 million Armenian Christians lived in the land that is now Turkey. By 1925, at least 1 million Armenians were dead, and most of the others had fled. The reason for the great loss of life is a matter of acrimonious debate, reverberating all the way to Capitol Hill nearly a century later.
Karekin II, pontiff of the Armenian Apostolic Church based in the Republic of Armenia, is spiritual leader to perhaps 7 million Armenians worldwide. In October, he toured America to drum up support for the House resolution.
Many scholars say Armenians were victims of the first 20th-century genocide. But most Turks, descendants of the Ottomans, disagree. Their historians say the Armenians were casualties of World War I, not genocide victims.
As Congress considered the resolution, Turkish opposition was fierce and swift. Protesters marched on American consulates, while the Turkish government, a NATO member state, warned that passage of the resolution would forever change Turkey's relationship with the U.S.
Backlash Feared Inside Turkey
Today, Armenian communities flourish around the world, with perhaps 500,000 Armenians in the United States alone. The Republic of Armenia, established in 1991, is delicately nestled between regional powerhouses Turkey and Iran. But a mere 70,000 Armenian Christians remain in Turkey, the birthplace of Armenian identity some 5,000 years ago. The Armenian Apostolic Church formed here in A.D. 301.
Mesrob Mutafyan, patriarch of the Armenian Church in Turkey, opposes the genocide resolution on the grounds that it may fuel a backlash. "Who is most vulnerable?" he asks. "The minorities inside. It harms our relations with the majority in the country." He spoke with Christianity Today during an interview near Istanbul.
Ethnic Turks and Armenians have an uneasy coexistence. The Armenian Church in Turkey has an estimated 40,000 regular attendees, and Turkish Armenians have a well-deserved reputation as the world's most church-attending people group. But there are only 48 churches and 25 ordained priests. The government closed all Christian seminaries in 1969.
The government has also removed traces of Armenian culture from locations vacated during World War I. That has sometimes meant destroying Armenian churches and cemeteries. In a famous case last year, Armenians restored a church in eastern Turkey, but were not allowed to put a cross on top or to hold services.
Security is a constant worry. Mutafyan has received many death threats. The government assigned him a bodyguard for a time, and incidents decreased. The church hires security forces to protect its 20 elementary schools.
"Turks are usually hospitable people," says Mutafyan. "On the other hand, ultranationalism in Turkey is rising and there are those who are afraid that minorities may be targeted."
The pontiff Karekin II, on his U.S. trip, downplayed any risk to Armenians in Turkey. Karekin told CT, "Truth cannot be a hostage to the extremists."
Traditional Churches Growing
The patriarch Mutafyan, 51, has broad shoulders and a trim, graying beard. The spiritual leader of the Armenian community exudes authority and warmth in a single glance. Often quoted in Turkish media, he is a man of few, carefully chosen words. He is widely popular for his charm and intellect, and for his ability to navigate the political high wires of his public station.
Mutafyan received guests, including CT, recently at his residence on an island outside Istanbul. In English, he volunteers that he completed his undergraduate degree in Memphis. "There are Christians there who don't even drink Coca-Cola," he says jokingly. Once he's determined that none of his guests are from Memphis, he orders Cokes for everyone.
But his demeanor turns grave as he looks over new photos of a vandalized church. More than buildings, his first priority is the spiritual development of his flock.
Mutafyan had a pivotal religious experience as a teenager. He was strongly influenced by his father, a devout believer. The young Mutafyan chose celibacy, not required for Armenian clergy, and threw himself into ministry. Indeed, he is credited with bringing a spiritual renewal among Armenians in Turkey.
Under the previous patriarch, Kaloustian, then-bishop Mutafyan started discipleship groups for prayer and Bible study some 20 years ago. Today, small groups are key to growth among Turkish Armenians.
Mutafyan spends much time petitioning the government to grant permits to restore church ruins and allow religious training. "Where do we send students?" he asks. It's expensive to train leaders overseas. His church receives no outside funding. "Our church fries in its own pan."
Mutafyan disputes the claim that he tiptoes around the genocide issue. "I have said many times that the ruling Committee of Union and Progress [Turkish government in 1915] took the wrong decision of punishing all Armenians in the Ottoman Empire," says Mutafyan. "Many perished in the Syrian Desert." He believes the goal should be changing citizens' attitudes toward their neighbors. The Republics of Armenia and Turkey share an international boundary but have no open border crossings. "I hope that Turks and Armenians would try to be more empathetic," he says.
That would be a small start. In the meantime, Armenians in Turkey will continue to bear the brunt of public declarations made on the world stage. "The more there are difficulties," says Mutafyan, "the more people are driven to church." And when they do come, their patriarch prays they will be ready for God to transform their lives.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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Jesus in Turkey | After 550 years of decline, a bloodied church is being reborn. (January 3, 2008)
Accidental Outreach | Christian leaders avoid targeting Kurds, but reach them anyway. (January 3, 2008)
Denise McGill interviewed Karekin II about his support of a resolution condemning the Armenian genocide.
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