To the sad melodies of Armenian
hymns, emotions clearly mixed, 150 Armenian-Americans gathered in
central Turkey on Friday on lands their ancestors fled amid mass
killings 75 years ago.
The unprecedented pilgrimage marked the 1,700th anniversary of the
founding of the Armenian Apostolic Church as the national church of
Armenians. But it was also a poignant moment in the fraught
relationship between Turkey and Armenians.
The “Armenian Question” has haunted Turkey for generations.
Accusations that Turks committed genocide against Armenians as the
Ottoman Empire collapsed have been raised in, among others, the
U.S. and French legislatures, but Turkey denies any such thing
“I heard so much about these lands from my father,” Kevork Toroyan,
65, from New Canaan, Connecticut, a thin man with a long grey
“I’m here to see the soil my father always spoke of.”
“Whatever happened in Ottoman times is history…(but) If Turkey is
going into Europe, it will have to defuse this issue.” He said he
had been warmly treated by Turkish officials.
The Armenian Americans had gathered at St. Gregory’s church in the
industrial city of Kayseri, built on the original site of the first
Armenian Apostolic Church. The devout prostrated themselves and
prayed beneath walls adorned with frescoes.
Mesrob Mutafyan, patriarch of 65,000 Armenians still living in
Turkey, conducted the ceremony dressed in a purple and black robe
and black hood.
The group will move on to Armenia’s capital Yerevan on June 17 for
a grand ceremony.
HISTORY’S LONG SHADOW
Much of the talk was of reconciliation between Turks and Armenians,
who say some 1.5 million died in massacres. The Armenians had been
a large and very vigorous community in the area and in Istanbul,
producing a thriving merchant class.
“My grandmother forgave the Turks and so I have to forgive the
Turks,” said Karen Demirdjian, 59, from Skokie, Illinois.
“She didn’t want to tell me about the massacres. She didn’t want to
relive the suffering. It was so tragic.”
Turkey insists the killing that took place in the few years from
1915 was part of a general partisan war in which many
nationalities, including Turks, suffered. But Armenian-Americans in
Kayseri believed Turkey should help heal wounds by fully opening
archives from the period.
The Armenian controversy is one that has hampered Turkey’s foreign
relations and soured ties with some countries whose support it
needs in its efforts to join the European Union.
Ankara banned two French companies from defence tenders for a year
in February after France’s parliament voted to recognise Armenian
accusations of genocide raised, particularly in the United States,
by the diaspora.
Demirdjian said many Armenians from her home town thought she was
wrong to come to Turkey.
“Even my husband wouldn’t come. He said ‘I’m not going to stop you,
but I’m not going’,” she added.
Some, a small number, were more direct.
“This is a very painful place for me to be,” Barbara Bejoian of
Rhode Island said. “My ancestors are celebrating in their graves
because we are coming back. I can never reconcile with Turkey until
the Turks admit to what they did.”
She said she was spending as little money as possible, not wanting
to contribute to the Turkish economy. She also complained about a
Turkish police escort which, she felt, was not there for their