What Turkey Did to Its Christians (2023)

A mid-19th-century traveler to Ottoman Turkey would have discovered a robust and diverse Christian presence of various denominations and ethnicities, including Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. In Turkey today there were between 3 and 4 million Christians - about 20% of the total population. They were scattered throughout the territory, from Thrace in the northwest to the far eastern regions of Anatolia beyond Lake Van, where the Armenians probably outnumbered the Turks. By 1924, three successive waves of massacres, deportations, kidnappings, and forced conversions reduced Christians to 2% of Turkey, and nearly all who stayed would leave in the coming decades.The Thirty Years of Genocidetells the story of this religious cleansing.

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The book's authors, Benny Morris and Dror Ze'evi, argue in great detail that the "30-year genocide" is not a Turkish-Armenian story. It is a story between Muslims and Christians. Documenting the atrocities committed against Christians by the Ottomans under Abdülhamid II (1894–96), under the “Young Turks” or “Committee of Union and Progress” (CUP) between 1915 and 1916, and finally under the Kemalists between 1919 and 1916 24, the authors repeatedly show how Islamic rhetoric and Islamic authorities not only permitted but encouraged the elimination of Christian communities: "All this happened with the active participation of Muslim clerics and the encouragement of the Turkish press."

The Qur'an teaches that "there is no compulsion in religion" (Q 2:256) and Islamic law grants Christians the right to practice (but not spread) their religion in Islamic states. It would therefore be wrong to simply blame Islam for the genocide. However, the authors show that in attacks on Christians by Turks and other ethnic groups, "the dominant motivation was religious". The text of the “Armenian Genocide” resolution, passed in the US Senate on December 12, 2019, recognizes the murder of “other Christians.” However, according to recent studies – and the limited media attention the genocide received – the resolution speaks only of an “Armenian” genocide. Morris and Ze'evi argue that this description fundamentally distorts history: “For the last several decades, historians have written well and persuasively about the Armenian Genocide of 1915-16. But what happened in Turkey between 1894 and 1924 was mass murder and the expulsion of the country's leaders.Christen– Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians.”

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Öthirty years of genocideit is well written but not easy to read. On more than six hundred pages, the authors describe town by town and village by village the atrocities that led to the expulsion of Christians from Turkey. They begin to set the scene in the 1870s and 1880s, when Armenians, aware of the revolutions spreading among the Christian-majority states of the Balkans and the advance of Tsarist-Russian forces across the Caucasus to the Borders of Eastern Anatolia began to be organized within the Ottoman Empire. Some had ambitions for an independent Armenia. When Abdülhamid II became Ottoman Sultan in 1876, he responded to the rise of independence movements with a policy of increased Islamization, largely ignoring the reforms called for by the 1878 Congress of Berlin. In the decades preceding the massacres of Christian villages, they were regularly subjected to higher taxes (which could be avoided by converting to Islam) and harassment by their Muslim (mostly Kurdish) neighbors. Occasionally, Christian women have been abducted, forced to marry their captors, and converted to Islam (a practice still occurring in Muslim-majority countries, includingPakistaneEgypt). Religious tensions were high and mistrust was in the air.

In 1894, Kurds began attacking Armenian villages, including Yozgat, Sason, and Geligüzan, where they met Armenian resistance. Overwhelmed, a force of four hundred Armenian men surrendered on a mountain outside the city, where they were massacred for refusing to accept Islam. Armenian women were abducted and boys were kidnapped and sold to Muslim families. This pattern of murder, forced conversion of men, and kidnapping of women spread like a wave across eastern Anatolia over the next two years. In one region, Mamuret-ul-Aziz, an Armenian bishop estimated that 15,179 people were forcibly converted to Islam, over 5,530 girls were raped, and 1,532 women and girls were forced to marry Muslims. Massacres of Armenians took place in and around the cities of Urfa and Diyarbekir, where scores of Christians converted to Islam to save their lives. In Urfa, Turkish police officers circulated “axes in hand” demanding that people “become Muslims”. Western powers refused to intervene in the massacres of 1894-96, but Morris and Ze'evi report instances of Turks harboring and rescuing Armenians. (In the village of Çemişgezek, for example, a Turkish leader named Kemal Bey protected Armenians, much to the chagrin of the Kurds.)

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Twenty years later, the Ottoman Empire was embroiled in the Great War and power had passed to the CUP. Russian forces were advancing on the eastern border and the CUP turned to the newly formed "special organization" (special organization) to implement a policy of deporting Armenians to the Syrian desert. In city after city, first in the east and then in the west, Armenian elites were rounded up, men taken to execution or to work details, and women, the elderly, and children sent in convoys, or death marches, toward Aleppo and then Deir ez-Zor. From 1915 to 1916 over a million Armenians were deported. Many died on the way from exhaustion or from attacks by Kurds and other civilians. The Armenians were eventually herded into camps in the Syrian desert near Ras al-Ain. Led by Salih Zaki, between 300 and 500 Armenians were taken out of the camp every day, killed (mostly by Circassian troops) and thrown into the Euphrates. About 350,000 Christians, mostly Armenians, were killed in the desert outside of Deir ez-Zor and Ras al-Ain during these years. Those who managed to reach Syrian cities like Aleppo and Damascus lived in despair. According to one estimate, between 4,000 and 5,000 Armenian children were sold to Arab families in Aleppo in 1918.

Those responsible for the brutal and mass deportation policy justified this as a reaction to the Armenian "threat". Cases of Armenian resistance or collaboration with Russia (e.g. in Van) have been cited to prove the reality of this threat. But the Armenians were not the only victims. In the ancient Christian cities of Nisibin and Cizre and elsewhere, Muslim militias and civilians systematically executed men from the Assyrian Christian community and raped or kidnapped women and children.

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The latest wave of anti-Christian violence unfolded in post-war Turkey. The Ottomans had suffered defeat at the hands of the great powers, and Mustafa Kemal's nationalists founded a new Turkish republic in Ankara. During this period, tens of thousands of Armenians returned to Cilicia, the southwestern region occupied by the British and French for several years. The presence of the Allied powers and the occupation of Smyrna and the surrounding area by the Greeks met with fierce opposition from Turkish nationalists. Terrible violence ensued when the French and British finally withdrew from Cilicia (and Istanbul) and the Greeks from Smyrna. Kemal blamed the Christians: "Whatever happened to the non-Muslim elements in our country is the result of the policies of separatism that they brutally pursued." By the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, nearly all Armenians who had returned to Cilicia had either been massacred or fled into exile. The Greeks of Smyrna were also wiped out (many fled to Greece on Allied ships), as was the ancient Pontic Greek community on the Black Sea coast, in a series of deportations and massacres (after a period of resistance - a point not emphasized by von will the authors). Kemal was glad the Christians had left: "The land has finally been returned to its rightful owners. Armenians and others have no rights here,” he told a Muslim audience in 1923.

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