A Catholic Reflection on the Armenian Genocide

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By Aidan McIntosh, The Catholic University of America

Today, Saturday, April 24th, is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, an annual memorial and holiday (in Armenia) observing the commencement of the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Commemoration of this genocide started in 1919 when survivors came together in Constantinople to mourn the loss of their loved ones and seek some sense of unity after years of terror. One Armenian public figure and writer, Hakob Siruni, writes: “The mourning ceremony became a tradition. Since then, the 24th of April was adopted as a symbol of mourning.” Even if we have no Armenian or Middle Eastern heritage ourselves, it is still important to look at this day with somber hearts and recognize the widespread persecution of Eastern Christians in the MENA (Middle East, North Africa) region that gets ignored and brushed off far too easily. 

The Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century, predating the Holocaust and the Ukranian Holodomor, yet it receives the least recognition in comparison to the other two. It was World War I’s most brutal component, far more horrific than the widespread trench warfare depicted in western history textbooks on the Great War. Between 1915 and 1917, Ottoman authorities deported between 800,000 and 1.5 million ethnic Armenians; the exact death toll will never be known, but 1 million is a common estimate among historians. The Armenians were one ethnic group in the diverse Ottoman Empire, although not huge; systematic deportation and genocide at this scale was enough to reduce their population within the crumbling empire by around 90%. Had the Ottomans not been destroyed by the British army and their own economic weaknesses, this prolonged genocide could have entirely wiped out the Armenian community in the empire, excluding the diaspora and those lucky enough to escape. 

April 24th marks the beginning of the genocide. On that day in 1915, Armenian public figures – intellectuals, physicians, clergy, politicians, lawyers, and others of high class – in Constantinople were deported per police orders. This would continue over the following months. The goal of targeting intellectuals and leaders of the Armenian community in Constantinople was to demoralize the populace and remove any chance of organized resistance against the Turks. The genocide was justified, according to the Ottomans and the modern government of Turkey, because of myths of Armenian violence or nationalism that undermined the Ottoman war effort; culturally, Armenians were very different from Turks, and the only solution to find national unity was to exile and kill the entire population. Similarly, the Turks sought to remove the Syriacs and Greeks from the empire in a wave of secular nationalism. 

This genocide did not happen ex nihilio. The political and cultural situation of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century fueled anti-Christian and anti-western (note that these are not synonymous) sentiment that led to populists like the Young Turks. The Ottoman Empire, which once spanned all of northern Africa, most of the Middle East, and a sizable amount of central Europe, was reduced to a smaller, less stable monarchy in Anatolia, small chunks of Europe and the Arabian peninsula. Their loss in the Balkans in 1912 fueled more anti-Christian sentiment; one consequence came to the Greek Orthodox population. The Greek Genocide is like the Armenian Genocide as it is seldom heard about; hundreds of thousands of Greek Christians, close to a million in some estimates, were slaughtered in the Ottoman Empire. The Turks treated the Armenians and Greeks with similar disdain and absolute contempt; many were killed during deportation or as they arrived at the camps. Likewise, the Syriac Christian population faced genocide as well (the Seyfo) and its death toll ranges between 200,000 and 275,000. Christians in the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Church were targeted and killed for their ancient beliefs. 

Anti-Christian sentiment among Turks was not fueled by Islam but by secular nationalism that undermined the traditionally Islamic empire. If militant Islam was the cause of genocide, we would expect to have seen similar genocides of this scale against Christians in the empire in the preceding centuries. While Christians were often persecuted and treated poorly in the empire, it is wrong to attribute the massacres of Armenians and Greeks on Islam. It was the Young Turks – young, Turkish intellectuals who favored secularism and liberalism and a revolution against the traditional Ottoman monarchy – who overthrew the empire’s status quo and caused these ethnic cleansings. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern-day Turkey, wrote quite harshly against this revolutionary group: 

“These left-overs from the former Young Turk Party, who should have been made to account for the millions of our Christian subjects who were ruthlessly driven en masse from their homes and massacred, have been restive under the Republican rule. […] They have hitherto lived on plunder, robbery and bribery and become inimical to any idea, or suggestion to enlist in useful labor and earn their living by the honest sweat of their brow… Under the cloak of the opposition party, this element, who forced our country into the Great War against the will of the people, who caused the shedding of rivers of blood of the Turkish youth to satisfy the criminal ambition of Enver Pasha, has, in a cowardly fashion, intrigued against my life, as well as the lives of the members of my cabinet.”

This implies popular dissent towards the group, as they violated the will of the people in World War I and the genocides, as well as their brutality caused by their ideology. The Young Turks are a terrifying example of what can happen when man commits idolatry towards ideology and makes it his main focus and mission in life. 

The Armenian population was predominantly Christian. Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity in the 4th century, largely due to St. Gregory the Illuminator’s conversion of the once-pagan state. The Armenian Apostolic Church is an ancient Oriental Orthodox church with claims in the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus, and it has united Armenians since its foundation. Under the Ottoman rule, Armenians had autonomy through the church, but were forced to pay a special tax and were generally distrusted by the authorities under allegations of disloyalty, largely due to their religious heritage. Even with the secular ideology of the Young Turks, they were seen as dangerous to the empire. The destruction of Christianity was still a common pursuit of the Young Turks and the Islamic clergy, and the Armenian genocide – destroying nearly the entire population – was a concentrated effort to rid the empire of the troublesome religion of so many ethnic groups. One particularly brutal example of execution, reminiscent of the early Christian martyrs, involved 16 Armenian girls being crucified in Malatia (part of Yerevan); thousands of other girls were executed after being sexually assaulted. 

It has been over a hundred years since the Armenian genocide began, but compared to the Holocaust or Holodomor, we have learned embarassingly little from this catastrophe. Pope Francis officially recognized the massacres as a genocide for the first time in 2015 at a special Armenian-rite Mass celebrated at St. Peter’s in Rome. He was with the Armenian president, the Armenian Apostolic patriarch and other high-ranking ecclesial officials, and the event was groundbreaking in Pope Francis’s ecumenical missions to reach out to eastern Christians and promote dialogue. Importantly, he said “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it”. Why does this statement matter? Denial of the Armenian genocide has been ongoing in Turkey for practically all of its history after WWI. Either the genocide is denied completely or it is justified on some grounds, generally based on the ‘disloyalty’ of the Armenians. 

Outside of that, the genocide is largely forgotten; in the west, it is rarely talked about or acknowledged, and this ties into our ignorance of the ongoing persecutions and genocide against Christians in MENA. The region was once the cradle of Christianity, with major apostolic sees in Antioch, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, but its Christian population has been reduced so significantly due to terrorism and radical Islamic regimes. This made the Holy Father’s visit to Iraq earlier this year so important, as it is the first time a pope has visited Iraq in history and because it represents the Latin Church’s outreach to our eastern Christian brothers – both the Chaldeans, in communion with Rome, and those in the Oriental Orthodox communion separated from Rome. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt explained in 2019 that the persecution of Christians in the MENA region was approaching genocide levels; this caused some alarm, but a great amount of apathy still remains. In 2015, ISIS martyred 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians in Libya, which prompted international backlash and increased some awareness of contemporary persecution. Earlier this week, a video of ISIS executing an elderly Coptic Orthodox man was released; the terrorists warned that Coptic Christians and those who supported the Egyptian military would suffer the same fate. 

We cannot remain silent on the ongoing genocide of Christians. We cannot remain ignorant of the genocides of the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago. We can complain about western culture being hostile or unfriendly towards traditional Christianity, especially the Catholic Church, but as long as we can safely walk to Mass or Divine Liturgy without the fear of getting blown up or kidnapped, we should count our blessings and pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who do suffer from this paranoia every single day. 

4 Responses

  1. It should be noted that Germany has acknowledged its crimes in WW II and made some reparations. The Japanese, in their own left handed manner and language, have effectively taken some responsibility for their role in that war and have initiated aid programs to the Asian nations that were affected. Turkey has remained obstinate and clearly demonstrates one more reason, as if any were required, why it should not be admitted to the European Union. It also shows the difficulty of integrating majority Muslim nations into the modern world.

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