What Turkey Did to Its Christians

A traveler in Ottoman Turkey in the mid-nineteenth century would have discovered a robust and diverse Christian presence of different denominations and ethnicities, including Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. There were between 3 and 4 million Christians in what is now Turkey—around 20 percent of the total population. They were spread throughout the area, from Thrace in the northwest to the far-eastern regions of Anatolia beyond Lake Van, where Armenians likely outnumbered Turks. By 1924, through three successive waves of massacre, deportation, abduction, and forced conversion, Christians had been reduced to 2 percent of Turkey, and almost all who remained would depart in the following decades. The Thirty-Year Genocide tells the story of this religious cleansing.

The book’s authors, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, argue, with meticulous detail, that the “thirty-year genocide” is not a story of Turk-versus-Armenian. It is a story of Muslim-versus-Christian. 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 ’16, and finally under the Kemalists between 1919 and ’24, the authors show again and again how Islamic rhetoric and Islamic authorities not only allowed but encouraged the elimination of Christian communities: “All of this occurred 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 affords Christians the right to practice (although not propagate) their religion in Islamic states. It would be wrong, then, simply to blame Islam for the genocide. Yet the authors show that, in attacks against Christians by Turks and other ethnic groups, “the overriding motivation was religious.” The text of the “Armenian Genocide” resolution passed in the U.S. Senate on December 12, 2019, recognizes the killing of “other Christians.” However, in line with recent scholarship—and the limited media attention the genocide has received—the resolution speaks only of an “Armenian” genocide. Morris and Ze’evi argue that this description fundamentally distorts history: “In recent decades historians have written well and persuasively about the Armenian Genocide of 1915–16. But what happened in Turkey over 1894–1924 was the mass murder and expulsion of the country’s Christians—Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians.”

The Thirty-Year Genocide is well written, but it is not easy to read. In well over six hundred pages the authors detail, town by town and village by village, the atrocities that led to the elimination of Christians from Turkey. They begin by setting the scene in the 1870s and ’80s, when Armenians, aware of the spreading revolutions among majority-Christian states in the Balkans, and of the advance of Russian Tsarist forces over the Caucuses to the borders of eastern Anatolia, began to organize themselves 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 intensified Islamization, and largely ignored the reforms demanded by the Berlin Congress of 1878. In the decades preceding the massacres of 1894–96 Christian villages were regularly subject to higher taxes (which could be avoided by converting to Islam) and to harassment by their Muslim neighbors (often Kurds). Occasionally Christian women were abducted, compelled to marry their kidnappers, and converted to Islam (a practice that still takes place in majority-Muslim countries including Pakistan and Egypt). Religious tensions were high and suspicion was in the air.

In 1894 Kurds began to attack 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 town where, refusing to accept Islam, they were murdered in batches. Armenian women were abducted and boys were taken and sold into Muslim families. This pattern of murder, forced conversion of men, and abduction of women, spread like a wave through eastern Anatolia over the next two years. In one region, Mamuret-ül-Aziz, an Armenian bishop calculated that 15,179 people were forcibly converted to Islam, more than 5,530 girls raped, and 1,532 women and girls compelled to marry Muslims. Massacres of Armenians unfolded in and around the cities of Urfa and Diyarbekir, where masses of Christians converted to Islam to save their lives. In Urfa Turkish police officers circulated “axe in hand with their demand for the people to become” Muslims. The Western powers largely refused to intervene in the 1894–96 massacres, but Morris and Ze’evi note cases of Turks who sheltered and saved Armenians. (In the village of Çemişgezek, for example, a Turkish leader named Kemal Bey sheltered Armenians, to the anger of Kurds).

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 frontier and the CUP turned to the newly formed “Special Organization” (Teskilat-i Mahsusa) to implement a policy of deportation of Armenians to the Syrian desert. In town after town, first in the east and then in the west, Armenian elites would be arrested, men would be taken away to be executed or sent to labor squads, and the women, elderly, and children would be sent in convoys, or death marches, toward Aleppo and then Deir ez-Zor. From 1915 to 1916 upwards of one million Armenians were deported. Many died from exhaustion or from attacks by Kurdish and other civilians along the way. Armenians were eventually gathered in camps in the Syrian desert near Ras al-Ayn. Under the guidance of Salih Zaki, between 300 and 500 Armenians were taken out of the camp each day, killed (mostly by Circassian troops), and thrown into the Euphrates. As many as 350,000 Christians, mostly Armenians, were killed in the desert outside of Deir ez-Zor and Ras al-Ayn in these years. Those who made it to Syrian cities instead, including Aleppo and Damascus, lived in desperation. By one estimate, between 4,000 and 5,000 Armenian children had been sold to Arab families in Aleppo by 1918.

Those responsible for the policy of massive and brutal deportation justified it as a response to the Armenian “threat.” Cases of Armenian resistance or collaboration with Russia (for example at Van) were cited to prove the reality of this threat. But Armenians were not the only victims. In the ancient Christian cities of Nisibin and Cizre, and elsewhere, Muslim militias and civilians systematically executed men in the Assyrian Christian community and raped or abducted women and children.

The final wave of anti-Christian violence unfolded in the confusion of the post-war period in Turkey. The Ottomans had suffered defeat at the hands of the Great Powers, and Mustafa Kemal’s nationalists were establishing a new Turkish Republic in Ankara. In this period tens of thousands of Armenians returned to Cilicia, a region in the southwest occupied for several years by the British and French. The presence of the Allied powers, and the occupation of Smyrna and its environs by the Greeks, was met with violent resistance by Turkish nationalists. When the French and British eventually withdrew from Cilicia (and Istanbul) and the Greeks from Smyrna, horrible violence followed. Kemal placed the blame on the Christians: “Whatever has befallen the non-Muslim elements living in our country is the result of the policies of separatism they pursued in a savage manner.” By the time of the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923 almost all the Armenians who had returned to Cilicia had been massacred, or fled again into exile. The Greeks of Smyrna had also been eliminated (many escaped on Allied ships to Greece), as had the ancient Pontic Greek community on the coast of the Black Sea, through a series of deportations and massacres (following a period of resistance—a point not emphasized by the authors). Kemal was glad to see the Christians gone: “The country has finally been returned to its rightful owners. The Armenians and the others have no rights at all here,” he told a Muslim audience in 1923.

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