The Philos Project, a think tank that promotes positive Christian engagement in the Middle East, hosting a briefing last week on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. I participated, along with the Project’s Founder and Executive Director, Robert Nicholson, Research Fellow Van Der Megerdichian, and Armen Sahakyan, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America. I covered the history of the Karabakh conflict, its religious implications, and why Christians in the West should care. A link is now available here.
At the Liberty Law blog this morning, I have an essay on historian Charles Laderman’s fine new book, Sharing the Burden: The Armenian Question, Humanitarian Intervention, and Anglo-American Visions of Global Order. At the turn of the 20th Century, American officials repeatedly voiced support for an independent Armenian state in Anatolia. The state was meant to compensate Armenians for the effects of genocide and offer them protection from hostile forces that surrounded them. Laderman explores why, notwithstanding the best intentions, the US Government ultimately abandoned Armenians and other persecuted Mideast Christians at the end of World War I. In my review, I explain what this history suggests for Mideast Christians today:
Congressional resolutions are very welcome, but history suggests that these Christians should not expect much more from America. Just as in the last century, despite the best intentions, America’s commitment to Christians in the Middle East today is limited: well wishes, exhortations for equality and tolerance, some humanitarian assistance—though nothing like the massive humanitarian campaign that took place in the last century and saved so many lives. Ultimately, nations act in their political and economic interests, and America does not perceive long-term interests that would justify putting at risk the large number of troops necessary to defend Mideast Christians on an ongoing basis. Many private citizens and charities continue to help Mideast Christians, thank God. But the sad lesson of Laderman’s book is this: if Christians in Syria expect the American government to do more to help them, they will find themselves on their own.
The full essay is available here.
On the First Things website, I have an essay on Lindsey Graham’s decision earlier this month to block a Senate measure commemorating the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and how his decision threatens Christians who live in the Middle East today. Senator Graham’s decision was inexplicable, I wrote, given what he has said about Turkey’s aggression in Syria, which has revived ISIS and led to new attacks on Christians, including one that killed a Catholic priest:
What is one to make of Senator Graham? He has expressed outrage at Turkey’s invasion of Syria. He recently suggested that NATO should expel Turkey for threatening the Kurdish militias who helped destroy ISIS. But his comments and his vote to block the Genocide resolution will only embolden Turkey and threaten the region’s Christians even more. Turkey does not see ISIS as a terrible problem and would happily accept the group’s revival, if that means injuring the Syrian Kurds.
That local Christians like Fr. Bidoyan will pay the price for the revival of ISIS is, to put it mildly, not a difficulty for Turkey. What difference would it make? In 100 years, people like Graham will suggest the suffering was all a fantasy, anyway. It won’t be the Armenian Christians who died in 1915 who will pay for Graham’s actions. It will be the dwindling and threatened Christian minority in the Middle East today.
Graham now says he was complying with requests from White House staff, who did not want to scuttle negotiations with Turkey over the placement of a Russian missile-defense system. If that was his reason, he should have said so, rather than accuse the resolution’s supporters of trying to “sugercoat” history. Graham says this was a one-off and he will not oppose the resolution in the future. So now the White House has reached out to other GOP senators to do the same thing. Stay tuned.
Continuing our focus this week on Orthodox Christians, here is a new book from Yale University Press on the Armenian Genocide of 1915, an ethnic cleansing campaign against Armenian Orthodox Christians in Ottoman Turkey that also swept up Greek and Syriac Orthodox Christians, as well as Catholics and Protestants. The Book of Whispers, is by Romanian parliamentarian Varujan Vosganian. Here’s the description from the Yale website:
A harrowing account of the Armenian Genocide documented through the stories of those who managed to survive and descendants who refuse to forget
The grandchild of Armenians who escaped widespread massacres during the Ottoman Empire a century ago, Varujan Vosganian grew up in Romania hearing firsthand accounts of those who had witnessed horrific killings, burned villages, and massive deportations. In this moving chronicle of the Armenian people’s almost unimaginable tragedy, the author transforms true events into a work of fiction firmly grounded in survivor testimonies and historical documentation
Across Syrian desert refugee camps, Russian tundra, and Romanian villages, the book chronicles individual lives destroyed by ideological and authoritarian oppression. But this novel tells an even wider human story. Evocative of all the great sufferings that afflicted the twentieth century—world wars, concentration camps, common graves, statelessness, and others—this book belongs to all peoples whose voices have been lost. Hailed for its documentary value and sensitive authenticity, Vosganian’s work has become an international phenomenon.
Last weekend, Pope Francis made an apostolic journey to Armenia, a small, landlocked country of three million in the South Caucasus, bordering Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The official motto of his journey was “Visit to the First Christian Nation,” a reference to Armenia’s being the first state to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in 301 A.D., a matter of great national pride. Only a small percentage of Armenians are Roman Catholics; more than 90% belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a member of the Oriental Orthodox communion. Yet Francis received an enthusiastic reception from the Armenian Church hierarchy, the government, and the everyday people who crowded his public events. It’s worth focusing on the reasons for the warm welcome, and on the diplomatic and ecumenical significance of his journey.
Armenia is in a rough neighborhood. To the east, the country is locked in a frozen conflict with Azerbaijan, a majority-Muslim country, over Nagorno Karabakh, a region populated by Christian Armenians that seeks independence from Azerbaijan. A ceasefire has been in effect for about 20 years. In April, Azerbaijan renewed the conflict; Armenians successfully resisted the Azerbaijani attack, and the ceasefire was restored, but nerves remain on edge. To the west, Azerbaijan’s ally, Turkey, another Muslim-majority nation, has closed its border with Armenia, preventing needed economic development. To the north, relations with Georgia are peaceful but mixed; Georgia has its own breakaway regions and leans towards Azerbaijan in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. The only strategic partner Armenia has in the region is its neighbor to the south, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which, somewhat surprisingly for outsiders, cooperates with Armenia on a number of issues. Armenia also has close relations with Russia. Indeed, the US typically thinks of Armenia as Russia’s proxy in the Caucasus. But the situation is more complicated than that. Russia plays both sides of the conflict in Nagorno Karabakh—it sells weapons to Armenia and Azerbaijan–and Armenians increasingly distrust it. As I say, a rough neighborhood.
The pope’s visit was a welcome sign that the outside world, and especially the West, has not forgotten Armenia. Even more, in Armenia, Francis once again went out of his way to use the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War I. Before the visit, the Vatican had suggested Francis Continue reading
This year, on its 100th anniversary, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 has received unusually prominent and long overdue attention. New, in-depth treatments have appeared from major presses: Thomas de Waal’s Great Catastrophe (Oxford), Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans (Basic Books), and Ronald Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else” (Princeton). The fact that current events echo the Genocide–in the last year, hundreds of thousands of Christians in Syria and Iraq, some of them descendants of the victims of 1915, have been displaced or slaughtered–helps explain this new interest. It is hard to see the photographs of the refugees of 2015 without recalling the photographs of Armenian Christians 100 years ag0.
Scholar Ronald Suny’s treatment is an excellent source for readers wishing to learn the history. Suny has provided an exhaustive, dispassionate treatment, situating the Genocide in the centuries-long relationship between Armenian Christians and their Turkish Muslim rulers. In the classical Islamic system of the Ottoman Empire, Armenians were dhimmis–Christians who received toleration in exchange for their willingness to accept a subservient status. Although Armenians could do well in Ottoman society, their situation was always precarious. In the nineteenth century, a secular, national consciousness formed in certain segments of Ottoman Armenian society, encouraged by European revolutionary ideas and European-influenced reforms in the Ottoman government. The Armenian revolutionaries were always a very small minority, but they occasioned brutal, collective punishments from the government, which led to further unrest and resistance from Armenians in Anatolia.
Eventually, during World War I, the Young Turk government decided to solve the Armenian Question once and for all, by “deporting” the entire Armenian population of Anatolia to Syria–through the Syrian desert. (Suny’s title quotes a Young Turk leader’s dismissal of Armenian suffering). Deportation was a euphemism for an extermination campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians–some sources put the number as high as 1.5 million–died in death marches and concentration camps. The government claimed military necessity; some Armenian revolutionaries were fighting with Russia in the hope of eventually gaining an independent state. But observers on the scene, including Turkey’s German allies, attested that the mass of the Armenian population remained loyal. Suny argues that the Young Turk leadership panicked after a military defeat in 1914 and decided that the survival of the Empire required the elimination of Armenians and other non-Muslims, whom the government saw as an existential threat. The Genocide, he writes, was “the pathological response of desperate leaders who sought security against a people they had both constructed as enemies and driven into radical opposition.”
Suny’s account is readable and thorough. The only criticism I have is that he sometimes discounts religion as a motivating factor. To be sure, he repeatedly discusses religious differences between Armenians and Turks. He explains the dhimma and the attitudes it fostered and notes that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were able to preserve themselves during the Genocide by converting to Islam. But, if I understand him right, he sees religion as an epiphenomenon, a marker for other, more relevant factors–tribe, politics, ethnicity. Religion, as such, was not so important.
The Genocide, like all major historical events, had many causes. The leaders of the Young Turk regime were not notably pious; they seem to have been motivated principally by a desire to create a Turkey for the Turks. But for many who did the actual killing, classical Islamic attitudes were an important motivating factor. The fact that Armenian Christians who converted to Islam were spared suggests this, as does the fate of the Assyrians, another Christian group that suffered genocide in 1915, though they posed no credible territorial threat. Besides, eyewitness accounts report that perpetrators proclaimed that they were acting in a holy cause, punishing rebellious infidels. This is not to say that classical Islam compels the genocide of Christians or that all Muslims believe this–obviously not. But religion deserves to be in the foreground of any explanation of the Genocide of 1915, and, indeed, any explanation for what is happening to Christians in the Mideast today.
Notwithstanding this criticism, Suny’s important book, the fruit of a lifetime of distinguished scholarship, is valuable for anyone wishing to learn the story of what happened in 1915. “By the end of the war,” he writes, “90 percent of the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire were gone, a culture and civilization wiped out, never to return. Those who observed the killings, as well as the Allied powers engaged in a war against the Ottomans, repeatedly claimed that they had never witnessed anything like it.” Sadly, the ensuing century would provide many further examples.
For those who are interested, the Library of Law and Liberty has published my essay, We Remember the Genocide–And We Must Avert Another. In the essay, I draw parallels to the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the persecution of Mideast Christians today:
Religiously motivated violence against Christians is not a new phenomenon. The attitudes classical Islam fosters—that Christians are vaguely alien dhmmis who can be tolerated as long as they remain subservient, but who forfeit protection if they assert equality or cooperate with outsiders—played an important role in 1915 and do so today. Again, most Muslims today do not endorse these attitudes, and other factors are involved, too. But to dismiss religion as a major factor in the current violence is to close one’s eyes to reality.
To read the full essay, please click here.
I’m honored to be speaking in New York today at an event sponsored by the Hudson Institute, “The Islamic State’s Religious Cleansing and the Urgency of a Strategic Response.” I’ll be discussing the Armenian Genocide on a panel titled “Genocide and Crimes against Humanity: The Islamic State’s Impact on Vulnerable Religious Minority Communities.” Other speakers include Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Walter Russell Mead, and Kirsten Powers.
Details about the program are here. CLR Forum readers, please stop by and say hello!
In March, Princeton University Press released They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else’: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny (University of Michigan). The publisher’s description follows:
Starting in early 1915, the Ottoman Turks began deporting and killing hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the first major genocide of the twentieth century. By the end of the First World War, the number of Armenians in what would become Turkey had been reduced by ninety percent—more than a million people. A century later, the Armenian Genocide remains controversial but relatively unknown, overshadowed by later slaughters and the chasm separating Turkish and Armenian versions of events. In this definitive narrative history, Ronald Suny cuts through nationalist myths, propaganda, and denial to provide an unmatched account of when, how, and why the atrocities of 1915–16 were committed.
As it lost territory during the war, the Ottoman Empire was becoming a more homogenous Turkic-Muslim state, but it still contained large non-Muslim communities, including the Christian Armenians. The Young Turk leaders of the empire believed that the Armenians were internal enemies secretly allied to Russia and plotting to win an independent state. Suny shows that the great majority of Armenians were in truth loyal subjects who wanted to remain in the empire. But the Young Turks, steeped in imperial anxiety and anti-Armenian bias, became convinced that the survival of the state depended on the elimination of the Armenians. Suny is the first to explore the psychological factors as well as the international and domestic events that helped lead to genocide.
Drawing on archival documents and eyewitness accounts, this is an unforgettable chronicle of a cataclysm that set a tragic pattern for a century of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Last Sunday in Rome, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, an ethnic cleansing campaign that took place at the end of the Ottoman Empire. In the course of a two-hour liturgy in the Armenian rite, and in the presence of the Armenian Catholic patriarch, patriarchs of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the president of the Republic of Armenia, and many Armenian pilgrims from around the world, Pope Francis made what should have been an entirely uncontroversial statement. The Armenian Genocide, he said, quoting his predecessor Pope St. John Paul II, “‘is generally referred to as the first genocide of the twentieth century.’”
The essential facts are well known. Armenian Christians made up a significant percentage of the population in the Ottoman Empire’s eastern provinces. For a few decades, there had been unrest. In religious and political reforms known as the Tanzimat, the Ottomans had formally granted equal status to Christians and Muslims. Equality for Christians caused a backlash among Turkish Muslims, though, and oppression of Armenians and other Christians continued, particularly in the countryside. Armenian paramilitary groups began to resist. When World War I began, the Young Turk government worried that these groups would side with Christian Russians. So it decided to solve the “Armenian Question” once and for all by deporting the entire Armenian population from Anatolia to Syria, through the Syrian desert. Deportation through a desert, without adequate protection or supplies, is obviously a recipe for mass extermination. And that is what happened. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenian Christians perished, under horrible conditions, in the death marches and slaughters. The enormities are well documented.
Nonetheless, the Turkish side refuses to acknowledge what happened as genocide, denying that there was any plan to eliminate Armenians from Anatolia, while also arguing, inconsistently, that the Armenians were a potentially disloyal population and that the Ottomans had a right to do what they did. Besides, they say, many Turkish Muslims also suffered and died in World War I—surely true, but a non-sequitur. Because of Turkey’s sensitivities on the subject, and because of geopolitical realities, many Western governments, including our own, dance around the issue. When running for office, President Obama promised that he would officially recognize the Genocide, a promise he immediately broke as president. So Pope Francis’s forthright statement—even if he was, in fact, only quoting a predecessor, who was in turn referring to a general consensus—was remarkable, and praiseworthy. (The words on paper don’t capture the tone of the pope’s remarks. Watch this video of the event from Rome Reports. Francis is not simply reading from a text. He obviously means every word of it).
In response, Turkey has condemned the pope’s remarks as religious hatemongering and recalled its ambassador from the Vatican. The repercussions will no doubt continue. Yesterday, Turkey’s minister for European affairs suggested the pope had been brainwashed by the Armenian community in Argentina. Today, Turkish President Recip Erdogan reacted in rather personal terms. According to the English-language Turkish Daily News, Erdogan–who actually has gone farther than many Turkish leaders in acknowledging the suffering of the Armenians in 1915–said the pope’s remarks were characteristic of a “politician” rather than a religious leader. “I want to warn the pope to not repeat this mistake and condemn him,” Erdogan said.
In his remarks, Francis correctly linked the Armenian Genocide to the persecution of Mideast Christians generally—100 years ago, and today. Religion was not the only factor in the Genocide, of course, but it had a major role. Armenians who converted to Islam were often spared; some of their descendants still live in Turkey today. Many Armenians died as Christian martyrs; indeed, the Armenian Apostolic Church will canonize these victims of the Genocide at a ceremony in Armenia this month. Moreover, as the pope told the crowd at St. Peter’s, the Genocide struck not only the “Armenian people, the first Christian nation”—here the pope is referring to the fact that Armenia was the first state to adopt Christianity as its religion, in 301 A.D.—but also “Catholic and Orthodox Syrians, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Greeks.” In all these communions, “bishops and priests, religious, women and men, the elderly and even defenseless children and the infirm were murdered.”
In addition, as everyone knows, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East continues today. The pope referred to these new martyrs as well: “Sadly, today too we hear the muffled and forgotten cry of so many of our defenseless brothers and sisters who, on account of their faith in Christ or their ethnic origin, are publicly and ruthlessly put to death – decapitated, crucified, burned alive – or forced to leave their homeland.” Many Christian communities in Syria and Lebanon took in the refugees of 1915, saving their lives, giving them a place to raise their children and preserve their faith. Now those communities themselves are the victims of ethnic and religious cleansing. To whom shall they go?
In an insightful column, Walter Russell Mead argues that Pope Francis’s remarks show that he has decided to raise the rhetorical stakes in the crisis facing Christians in the Mideast. Up till now, the Vatican has taken a “‘softly, softly’” approach to the conflict, so as not to endanger the lives of vulnerable Christians still there. Outside intervention often makes things worse for Mideast Christians, after all. But how much worse can things get? Mideast Christians face extinction.
Today’s Turks are not responsible for what their ancestors did 100 years ago. God willing, Turks and Armenians will one day be able to reconcile in a way that honors justice. Acknowledging the truth about what happened to the Armenians is a start. Meanwhile, drawing attention to the Armenian Genocide may be a way to mobilize the world to save suffering Christians now—before it is too late.