International News

Turkey's Armenians caught in crossfire
by Reuters, June 7, 1998
Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2000 07:22 pm CST

ISTANBUL, Turkey (REUTERS) - Turkey's tiny Armenian community is caught in the cross-fire of a row over claims of genocide more than 80 years ago, their spiritual leader said.

"The State of Armenia, the Armenian Diaspora, the Turkish government, all three have different views and opinions... when these three shoot at each other, we are right in the middle," Mesrob Mutafyan, archbishop and acting patriarch of Turkey's Armenians, told Reuters in an interview.

Armenia and its far-flung Diaspora say Turks killed 1.5 million of their compatriots during "ethnic cleansing" campaigns in what is now eastern Turkey and Syria during World War I.

Ankara vehemently denies the claim and says thousands of Turks and Armenians died in intercommunal fighting.

Turkey's 60,000-strong Armenian community was unsettled last week when the French National Assembly adopted a bill stating: "France publicly recognises the Armenian genocide of 1915."

Turkey roundly condemned the resolution and threatened dire consequences for economic and political ties with France.

"The Armenian community in Turkey finds itself between two fires," said Mutafyan, bedecked in purple robes at his palace in one of Istanbul's old Armenian quarters.

For the bearded archbishop, the leading candidate to succeed the late Karekin II as Patriarch of Turkey's ethnic Armenians, the truth is obscured by emotion.

"I have read reports of the 1915 events, both Armenian books and Turkish books. It is true that both are extremes. All I have to say on a personal note is that they have been terrible and sad events," Mutafyan said. Interference by third parties just made matters worse for Turkish Armenians, Mutafyan said.

"This French parliament's decision, this is something between Turkey and Armenia. So what does all of a sudden France have to do with this?" he said.

Turkish President Suleyman Demirel has asked his French counterpart Jacques Chirac to intervene to stop the bill becoming law when it is discussed in the upper house of parliament later this month.

"There is a government in Turkey and Armenia, two governments. Why don't they come together to talk about these things?" said Mutafyan.

The feeling of being caught in the middle is compounded by the clash of cultures experienced by Turkish Armenians.

"Every Armenian in Turkey grows up with three elements in his personality: being a Turkish citizen... then his heritage as an Armenian... and then his faith as a Christian in a country which is overwhelmingly 99% Moslem."

The Armenians are one of Turkey's three official minorities and have the right to their own schools, with some classes in Armenian and Christian religious teaching.

The vast majority of Turkish Armenians are based in Istanbul and have a reputation as good artisans and small businessmen.

The resurfacing of the row over 1915 has led to the discreet community being singled out by Islamic activists and the Turkish far right.

"We are also subjected to this kind of pressure from elements of the Armenian Diaspora," said Mutafyan. "Some will mistreat me because I am a Turkish Armenian and say why don't you come out of Turkey, why do you still live in Turkey?"

"The Armenians of Istanbul are not part of the Diaspora, we are natives of this land...we were here even before the Ottoman Empire," said Mutafyan, backed by pictures of Jesus and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey.

On top of the memories of 1915, relations between Turkey and neighbouring Armenia have been further soured by ethnic conflict between Armenians and Turkey's close cousins in Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Turkey has enforced an embargo on Armenia since the early 1990s.

Mutafyan said he hoped the Armenians of Turkey, squeezed between each side and tied to the cultures of both, could act as a catalyst to overcome ancient hatreds.

"Our future history should not be blocked by events of the past," he said.

"The future belongs to the youth and if the young Turkish people and the young Armenian people... continue the fight of people 80 years ago, we don't have a chance for the future, for a better world," said Mutafyan.

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