The Surp Grigor Lusavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator) Armenian Church in Istanbul’s Kuzguncuk district has been attacked, the newspaper Agos reported.
On May 23, an unknown assailant ripped off a cross from the church door. The moment of the attack was caught on surveillance cameras.
This was the second attack against a church in Istanbul this month. On May 8, the Armenian Church Dznunt Surp Asdvadzadni was also targeted in a hate attack by an individual who tried to burn the church. The attempt only caused minor damage to the church’s door.
The location of the targeted church, Kuzguncuk, used to be a majority-non-Muslim neighborhood. It was “once a mixed community of Greeks, Jews, and Armenians” with a minority of Muslims, wrote the scholar Amy Mills in her 2010 book, Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul. “In Kuzguncuk in 1914, there were 1,600 Armenians, 400 Jews, 70 Muslims, 250 Greeks, and 4 foreigners.”
This all shifted dramatically during to the 1913-1923 genocide against Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. The Christian population thus declined, but according to a local historian of Kuzguncuk, Nedret Ebcim, in 1933, the neighborhood’s population was still 90 percent non-Muslim.
The majority [were] Jews, followed by Greeks, Turks, and Armenians… Kuzguncuk residents who remember this period describe a culture in which it was not uncommon for every resident to speak a little Ladino [Judeo-Spanish], Greek, Armenian or French.
But today, Jewish and Christian families resident in Kuzguncuk number merely a handful. And most of them are married to Muslims… The churches and synagogues are maintained largely by people who live in other neighborhoods and return to Kuzguncuk to attend weekend services and maintain the buildings… The Armenian church has a very small congregation that comes from other areas of Istanbul, as there are almost no remaining Kuzguncuklu Armenians.
Even after the Turkish state was established in 1923, non-Muslims in Turkey were exposed to systematic discrimination. According to Mills:
Since the beginning of the republic, Turkey’s leaders wanted to increase the participation of Muslims in the economy and reduce minority influence in the economy, especially in Istanbul… During the teens and early 1920s, boycotts against non-Muslim businesses and the expulsion of minorities from hundreds of jobs where they had dominated resulted in thousands of non-Muslims leaving Istanbul.
In 1922, the National Turkish Trade Association was founded to determine which businesses were Turkish. The association discovered that 97% of the import-export trade in Istanbul, and all shops, stores, restaurants, and entertainment centers in Beyoğlu, were owned by minorities. This survey was a precursor to actions taken with the aim of Turkifying the city’s economy; in 1923, non-Muslims were expelled from trading jobs and insurance companies. In 1924 minorities were barred from service jobs, bars, restaurants, coffeehouses, as well as trades such as boat captain, fisherman, and streetcar driver, jobs previously dominated by non-Muslims. In 1934 a law identified further minority-dominated professions to be prohibited to foreigners.
Turkification policies in the 1920s and 1930s in Istanbul targeted not only property and economic rights, but also non-Turkish language and culture.
The pressures continued during the 1940s as well: in 1941–1942, all Christian and Jewish males, including the elderly and mentally ill, were conscripted and forced to work under horrendous conditions in labor battalions. In 1942, a Wealth Tax law was imposed to eliminate Christians and Jews from the economy. Those who could not pay the taxes were sent to labor camps, deported, or had their properties seized by the government.
Turkey then became a member of the Council of Europe in 1950, and of NATO in 1952. But even these major attempts at “cooperation” with the West did not end the persecution of non-Muslims in the country. Greeks, Armenians and Jews were violently targeted during the pogrom of September 6–7, 1955 in Istanbul, which greatly escalated the non-Muslim emigration from Turkey.
In 1999. Turkey was officially recognized as a candidate for European Union Membership. But according to a report by Dr. Tessa Hofmann published in 2002:
87 years after Turkey’s Armenian population was exterminated, the country’s small remaining Armenian minority is still the target of intense prejudice, often nurtured by part of the country’s media and political establishment. Armenians are still subject today to an impressive array of discriminatory measures, whose apparent purpose is to make life as an Armenian impossible in Turkey.
And today, 18 years after the publication of the report, attacks against churches, Armenian schools and hate speech in the media continue making life difficult for the Armenians in Turkey.
The Hrant Dink Foundation, named after the Armenian journalist killed in Istanbul in 2007, has monitored hate speech in all Turkish national and local newspapers since 2009. According to its reports, Armenians always end up in the top three targeted groups in the Turkish media.
The number of minority citizens leaving Turkey and settling in other countries is thus rising day by day. “Those who are not Turkish and Muslim are more serious about leaving and migration,” according to the newspaper Agos.
An Armenian citizen of Turkey who moved to Europe in 2016 told Agos:
Our primary reason was that we wanted our child to live in more civilized conditions. Turkey hasn’t been peaceful at least for 5 generations. Turkey cannot manage to reach to ‘the level of contemporary civilizations’ and it seems that it won’t in the next 30 years.
Thinking that no place can be worse than Turkey, you choose to go anywhere else in order to have the life you deserve. I know many families who decided to leave Turkey and started to do something for it. The ones who had the opportunity left Turkey and the ones who cannot leave continue to live in Turkey, thinking what they would do in such an environment.
The history of the annihilation of non-Muslims in Turkey is more or less the history of all ex-Christian Middle Eastern lands. The dates, places and sequence of events may differ but the fundamental reasons for the complete or near-extermination of non-Muslims in those lands are the same: massacres, persecution and pressures.
“Turkey used to be called Anatolia or Asia Minor and was a Christian civilization,” writes Dr. Bill Warner. “Today Turkey is over 95% Muslim. North Africa, Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon used to be Christian. Afghanistan was Buddhist; Pakistan and Malaysia used to be Hindu. Today they are more than 95% Muslim. Islam does not reach a balance point with the native civilization; it dominates and annihilates the indigenous culture over time.”
Is it not the high time that the West finally started truly caring about the plight of Armenians and other persecuted Christians in the region?
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.