Armenian genocide and modern memory

The Daily Beast, a news and opinion website published by Tina Brown in conjunction with Newsweek magazine, has weighed in on the diplomatic spat between Israel and Turkey. In a piece entitled "The Erdogan Doctrine", columnist Owen Matthews argues President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party have been unfairly characterized as villainous Islamist thugs. They have actually sought to build bridges with Turkey's minority faiths, Matthews argues.

Yet the notion of Erdogan as a Jew-hating jihadi doesn’t really fit. Just before the current standoff, Erdogan sat down to dinner with the leaders of Turkey’s religious minorities, including the Chief Rabbi of Istanbul, and promised to return thousands of properties the Turkish state had confiscated from Christians and Jews in the past century. He also made a point of praising the “vast diversity of the people that have peacefully coexisted” in Istanbul. “In this city the [Muslim] call to prayer and church bells sound together,” said Erdogan. “Mosques, churches, and synagogues have stood side by side on the same street for centuries.”

The Daily Beast is also somewhat overgenerous in describing what Erdogan has offered: only the properties of Christian and Jewish institutions seized since 1936 are under discussion. Neither the property of individual Christians and Jews confiscated by the state nor the wholesale expropriations of the 1920's are being reviewed.

The Daily Beast also uncritically relates Erdogan's words of religious peace and harmony .. queue the video .. without offering context. The prime minister is able to speak of religious harmony because Turkey's religious minorities are all but extinct. In the home city of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople it would have been just as easy for Erdogan to sit down to dine with all of the city's remaining Orthodox Christians as with its minority religious leaders. An op-ed in The Hill, "Religious Freedom for Turkey?" penned by members of US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is less sanguine about the prospects for Christians, Jews, and members of minority Muslim sects, especially the Alawites than The Daily Beast.

Turkey’s Christian minority has dwindled to just 0.15 percent of the country.  In the words of one church leader, it is an “endangered species.”  In past centuries, violence exacted a horrific toll on Turkey’s Christians and their churches.  This provides a frightening context and familiar continuity to a number of recent high-profile murders by ultranationalists.

Turkey’s Jewish community also fears a reprise of past violence, such as the 2003 al Qaeda-linked Istanbul synagogue bombings.   Societal anti-Semitism has been fueled in recent years by Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel’s activity in the Middle East and by negative portrayals in Turkey’s state-run media.

Today, however, it is the state’s dense web of regulations that most threatens Turkey’s religious minorities.

And this brings me to the articles under examination.  The English-language editions of Turkey's two major daily newspapers, the Hürriyet Daily News and Today's Zaman, offer stories on the re-opening an ancient Armenian church located on an island on Lake Van in Eastern Turkey. The Hürriyet Daily News has "Historical Armenian church hosts service" from the Anatolia News Agency, the Turkish state wire service, while Today's Zaman prepared an in-house version entitled "Armenians hold second religious ceremony at Akdamar church."

Both pieces present a straight forward if slight account of the festivities. The Church of the Holy Cross, a tenth century Armenian Apostolic Church located on Akdamar Island in Lake Van, hosted its second religious service since it was renovated in 2007.  Between 2000-3000 attended the service and the reports note the island drew 30,000 tourists in 2010 (or are they pilgrims?) after the Turkish government reopened the building as a museum.

Where things go wrong is when the Turkish correspondents attempt to give some historical context to the story. The Hürriyet Daily News states:

The church remained as part of a monastic complex until the beginning of the 20th century. It was abandoned during World War I due to fighting along the Russian border and was left in a bad condition for many years.

While Today's Zaman notes:

The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross was a monastic complex until 1920s, but deteriorated in condition after being abandoned during World War I. Upon a proposal by the Governor’s Office of Van and approval of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the church is expected to now host annual religious services.

Armenians who lived in this province, located on the eastern shore of Lake Van and in eastern Anatolia, were deported by Ottoman forces in 1915. Armenians say 1.5 million Armenians were killed during a systematic campaign in eastern Anatolia, while Turkey strongly rejects the claims of genocide, saying the killings came as the Ottoman Empire was trying to quell civil strife and that Muslim Turks were also killed in the conflict. There are only around 60,000 Armenians left living in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul.

Yes, the Church of the Holy Cross was abandoned during World War I. The reason why it was abandoned was because the Turkish Army sacked the monastery, killed the monks and drove off, or murdered, the Armenian population in the region.  Today's Zaman makes note of the Armenian genocide, but states it is a contested point in history.

I very much doubt the heavy hand of the censor massaged these passages. The Daily Hurriet is the principle opposition newspaper, while Today's Zaman backs the Islamist government. What we see here is a loss of memory. The genocide is not mentioned because its memory has not been preserved in Turkey.

Journalism is a craft, a learned trade that has a pragmatic and moral end. It informs while it also educates. If the press does not speak the truth about the past, no matter how unpalatable this past may be to nationalistic or religious sensibilities, it fails in its mission.

The bottom line: The absence of the Armenian Genocide from this story, whether through ignorance, accident or design, means that these articles fail the test of good journalism.

In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel wrote: "That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices."

Buildings may survive, but memory of peoples fades away. A free press should not be an accomplice.

Nota bene: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Yerevan bureau filed a report that fills in the blanks. "Thousands Attend Armenian Church Mass In Turkey"

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