Hidden Armenians of Turkey Seek to Reclaim Their Erased Identities

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — For the first 25 years of his life, Armen Demirjian thought he was Kurdish. Then the elders in his village told him his family’s secret: His grandfather was Armenian, a survivor of the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks a century ago.

“I was completely confused,” said Mr. Demirjian, 54. “I was very sad as well. I was raised with the Kurdish culture and history.”

Mr. Demirjian, whose grandfather was sheltered by a Kurdish family as a child, held on to his secret. In recent years, though, as Turkey has allowed minorities to identify themselves more freely, he has embraced in full his family’s truth.

He changed his name to his family’s Armenian one, participated in the restoration of a church in this city, took Armenian language lessons and started delivering Agos, an Armenian newspaper published in Istanbul, to others in this area with a similar past. When his cellphone rings, it blares a song by the Armenian-Syrian singer and songwriter Lena Chamamyan.

“From now on,” he said, “I want to carry on with my Armenian heritage and culture.”

The genocide and expulsion of Armenians from eastern Anatolia in World War I, an atrocity whose centennial will be commemorated this week with ceremonies around the world, is largely a story of the dead: Historians estimate that nearly 1.5 million Armenians were killed. But there are also the stories of the tens of thousands of survivors, mostly women and children, who were taken in by local Turkish families. They converted to Islam and took on Kurdish or Turkish identities.

Now, a growing number of their descendants are identifying as Armenian, and their personal experiences contrast with the perennial denial by the Turks and the lasting pain and anger of the Armenians. The Turkish government has long denied that the massacres amounted to genocide — they say the killings were a tragic consequence of war, not a planned annihilation. Armenians, both in a vast international diaspora as well as in Armenia itself, have long demanded an apology and recognition from Turkey.

The Armenians in southeast Turkey, whom historians have called “hidden Armenians” or “Islamized Armenians,” want those things, too, but for the most part they are less beholden to the painful past.

“If you compare our anger to the anger in the diaspora and in Armenia, ours would be like 1 percent of their anger,” said Aram Acikyan, who works as a caretaker here in Diyarbakir at the Surp Giragos Church, the largest Armenian church in Turkey and the Middle East. The church was restored in recent years with the help of the local Kurdish authorities, and now symbolizes efforts at reconciliation.

Those efforts have largely been possible because the Kurds were willing to acknowledge their role, as agents for the Ottoman Turks, in the genocide a century ago. That the Kurds themselves suffered under the Turks, who have long denied the existence of a separate Kurdish identity, made reconciliation between Kurds and Armenians easier.

“The freedom we have here to say, ‘I am Armenian,’ is all thanks to the Kurdish movement,” said Mr. Acikyan, 48, whose grandfather survived the genocide and was taken in by a Kurdish shepherd and his wife.

Many of the hidden Armenians here who are rediscovering their roots have found it easier to discard their Kurdish or Turkish identities, and to embrace an Armenian one, than to relinquish their religion. Most have remained Muslim rather than converting to Christianity, the religion of their ancestors, and so the restored church here in Diyarbakir feels more like a cultural center than a house of worship.

Easter at the Surp Giragos Church this year was a splendid affair, with the sun shining brightly and plenty of colored eggs and traditional braided breads. A priest flew in from Istanbul to celebrate Mass.

Yet when the service began, many of the few hundred people who had gathered preferred to stay outside, under the sun in the courtyard, chatting and smoking, or eating a breakfast of cheese and olives and eggs at the cafe. And when holy communion was administered, roughly a dozen people, maybe fewer, lined up.

“I love coming to the church,” said Ozlem Dikici, who was sitting in the courtyard. “But I am Muslim. I pray five times a day.”

Ms. Dikici’s husband, who recently took an Armenian name, Armenak Mihsi, sat next to her and repeated the story he was told by his grandfather: The family was wealthy and had connections with the Ottoman elite, and so was warned about killings and deportations.

“Only five years ago did I really accept this,” Mr. Mihsi said. “For 20 years, it was confusing. It’s not just being Armenian, but there is the Christian side of it, too. It’s very difficult to change religions.”

Many of the Armenians who converted to Islam became even more religious than their fellow countrymen, as if to prove that they were good Muslims and to overcome prejudice and suspicion.

Mr. Mihsi, for example, has made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, 10 times.

Through the generations, even while living as Muslims, many were aware of their Armenian heritage. “It was all anyone talked about in this region,” said Aziz Yaman, 58, but only within the family, in private. Even today, he added, his family keeps to one old Armenian custom — making wine, and drinking it.

“Everyone has their own story,” he said.

Mr. Demirjian, a man of good cheer, smiled broadly when speaking recently about coming to terms with his Armenian identity. Sitting at a cafe here, he arrayed in front of him some of the relics of his family’s past. A government document listed his grandfather as a Christian. He showed his father’s passport, stamped by Saudi Arabia from a long-ago pilgrimage to Mecca. There was also a magazine article about a relative who became an antiques dealer in New York.

By Tim Arango The New York Times

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