Does Turkey See Its Armenian Minority as a Security Threat?

by Dorian Jones

Members of the small ethnic Armenian community in Turkey are feeling increasingly uneasy. Their wariness is an outgrowth of recent claims by senior officials in Ankara that Kurdish rebels collaborate with Turkish Armenians, as well as the government’s move to expropriate several Armenian churches.

The words and actions come amid heavy fighting between Turkish security forces and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in towns and cities across southeastern Turkey. In these areas, graffiti with expletives calling ethnic Armenians traitors and accusing them of working with the rebels is commonplace.

“Everybody is afraid, there is fear everywhere,” said one ethnic Armenian resident of Diyarbakir, Turkey’s main Kurdish population center, a city of roughly a million inhabitants. “If the fighting gets worse, the fire will burn us, too. … We are not the direct target. But if this fire grows, it will definitely swallow us, too.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apparently sees links beyond just the PKK.

During his visit to the United States earlier this month, Erdogan claimed that angry protests in Washington, DC, over Turkey’s fight against the PKK are part of a national and international conspiracy. He described the Kurdish American protesters, gathered outside the Brookings Institution, where he was scheduled to speak, as “representatives of the PKK terrorists’ organization, the YPG [Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units], Asala, and the parallel state [a reference to the movement led by self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen], who previously fled Turkey and currently live in the United States, standing side by side and live in each other’s pockets.”

Asala was an Armenian terrorist group that assassinated dozens of Turkish diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s. A flare-up in fighting in early April between Armenia and Turkey’s closest Eurasian ally, Azerbaijan, that erupted during Erdogan’s trip no doubt further fueled the government’s anxiety.

But even earlier, in a February 27 speech attacking Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also played the Armenian card. The prime minister in the speech accused Turkish-Armenian activists of helping the HDP establish political contacts with Russian leaders. Such contacts at this particular time are guaranteed to raise Ankara’s ire, given the high-level of enmity in Turkish-Russian relations. Bilateral ties have been in a nosedive since November, when Turkish fighters shot down a Russian military jet.

The hostile comments made by top Turkish leaders have alarmed members of Turkey’s ethnic Armenian minority, a group of uncertain size that generally stays in the shadows.

“The expressions of the president and the prime minister are supporting this phenomenon and encouraging those targeting the Armenians,” Garo Paylan, a Turkish-Armenian member of parliament from the HDP, told the news website. “We have seen in the writings on walls in cities under barricades that the word ‘Armenian’ still is being used as a swearword in Turkey.”

Historically, Turkish nationalists have always portrayed Turkey’s predominantly Christian Armenian minority as an untrustworthy fifth column, sympathetic to traditional enemy Russia. Until recently, schools echoed that claim. The prejudice extends to an unwritten rule that prevents ethnic minority members from becoming police officers, army officers or judges.

For some ethnic Armenians, the suggestion that they are collaborating with PKK rebels brings to mind World War I suspicions that their community supported Russian interests – a notion that helped fuel the mass slaughter of ethnic Armenians in 1915.

Years ago, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party had presented itself as free from such prejudices. It attempted a diplomatic reconciliation with neighboring Armenia, and allowed the reopening and refurbishing of some Armenian churches in the southeast. It also took steps to return some previously expropriated Armenian properties.

Yet this month, the state expropriated St. Giragos in Diyarbakir, the largest Armenian church in the region. St. Giragos recently underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation, paid for primarily by contributions from members of the Armenian Diaspora and the pro-Kurdish city government. The expropriation was part of an eminent domain action, under which the Turkish government adopted legislation that gave it possession of 90 percent of the city’s historic Sur quarter.

The seizures are part of government plans to redevelop Sur, parts of which were devastated by recent fighting with the PKK. In a government video illustrating future plans for the area, numerous images of mosques are included, but no churches, even though the quarter contains seven churches. In addition to the expropriation of St. Giragos, two other churches with Armenian ties were taken over by the government, along with a Protestant and an Assyrian houses of worship.

Local civic activists fear that the government’s redevelopment plan will drastically alter the city’s flavor. “We are talking about a city where 33 civilizations existed. It means something to us and it means something else to the Turkish state,” said Merthan Anik, former head of the Diyarbakir chamber of architects. “When the prime minister came to Diyarbakir [on April 1] he made a speech emphasizing only the Ottoman and Seljuk architecture and culture.”

Muhammed Akar, head of Diyarbakir’s branch of the ruling Justice and Development Party, downplayed such concerns. “This expropriation matter is misunderstood,” Akar said.

Much uncertainty remains concerning the plans for the Sur neighborhood. The official claim that the expropriation measure is being misinterpreted is not reassuring members of the local Armenian community. “We are not unfamiliar with this. We have anxiety, fear because we don’t know” what will happen, said Gaffur Türkay, a board member of the Giragos Foundation, a non-profit group which works to maintain St. Giragos.

A bomb threat incident from Islamic State terrorists during the Easter holiday already had heightened the sense of vulnerability, commented political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Süleyman Sah University. The threat turned out to be a hoax, but the Armenian community remains wary. “All in all, they [Turkish Armenians] are not as confident as a few years ago,” Aktar said.

As the government shifts to an increasingly nationalist narrative, that discomfort is not likely to dissipate soon.

Photo of Armenian flags in front of mosque by Harout Arabian via Flickr.

Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul. Reprinted, with permission, from EurasiaNet.

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  1. This is very concise well written. Author has done his homework. Ultimately, Turks need signals. Merkel, Cameron, and Obama administration looseness with regards to Syria fuels Turkish nationalism. World leades should be alarmed by three things. (1) Turkey funding mosques and propping up Muslim populations abroad in exchange for political clout. If Turkey can then use these populations in Europe, Russia, Balkens, Asia, and Americas as a political tool the sovereignty of the free world will take a back seat to Ottoman expansionism. Essentially, Turkey is hijacking Islam to push forward a Turkish agenda. If Turkey is the leader of Islamic nations, why oppress Kurds? Muslims internationally should consider this before accepting Funding from Turkey and Azerbaijan.

    (2) Turkish military industrial build up. Why are they funding amphibious transportation ships? Why build home grown military industry?

    (3) Russian decline by NATO expansion and inability of European nations to mobilize conventional war militaries. Couple with politized Islam through Turks and Azeri dollars leads to a Ottoman-esque expansion of Turkish state.Israeli and Arab politicians are just going to get used to push forwards a Turkish expansion in which they too will get burned. Turks are using Jewish network to subdue internal failures to address minirity questions.

    Ultimately, world is supporting a new “nationalist-socialist” state. Turkey is what Germany would have been if Allies had not captured Berlin.

  2. Like the Zionist Eretz (Greater) Yisrael project, Erdogan is embarking upon an attempted restoration of the former Ottoman Empire. The Armenian Diaspora should set up its own kindertransport project to safely remove Armenian children and young people from Turkey.
    If they don’t, we may yet see another Armenian genocide by Turkey all over again.
    Like the US, Sauds and other similar Gulf states, Turkey is trying to use terrorism.
    They all think they an exert control over terrorists and use them for their own purposes.
    They are all – of course – idiotically mistaken in their beliefs – but they don’t pay for it.
    It will be ordinary Armenians and many others who will suffer, which is why they need help now.

  3. The remaining Armenians in Turkey have always been a cowed minority. In Turkey, equating Armenians with dogs is a racist pass time, a characterization having been extended to Jews as of late. The Armenian population of Turkey estimated at 50K, and could not possibly be a threat to a 75 million majority. The threat is Turkey’s own national ethos, based on an ethnic and exceptionalist superiority of a mythical Turkic people. This militant ideology is personified in the language and actions of Turkish President Erdogan. Even Turkish Foreign Minster Davutoglu was forced to resign last week for he was given an audience at the Nuclear Summit in DC with US VP Biden and Erdogan was not. A rather sultan-like reaction.

    The Republic of Turkey was jump started by the stolen land and wealth of a million and a half Armenians and the ghost of that genocide permeates Turkish society. The Turkish ability to demographically engineer itself was admired by the Nazis and Hitler himself. The Turks eliminated Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, any other unturkifiable minority, and accomplished with complete impunity.

    Turkey has never been called to the carpet for any of its actions since the formation of the Turkish state in 1923. Like a spoiled child, it tends to connive and plot to get whatever it feels it is in its mythical interest. It has only been now, with its involvement in Syria, where it may have bit off more than it can chew.

    Perhaps unknown to many is that Armenia’s border with Turkey is protected by Russian soldiers and has been since the breakup of the Soviet Union. If this border were not secured in this way, the Turks would have for sure overrun Armenia in the early 1990s, if not subsequently.

    The recognition of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, especially by the US would go a long way in deterring the Turkish dream of eliminating the one big thorn in its side, not having killed every Armenian.

    Yerevan, Armenia

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