How Christian communities Die in the Middle East: The Sorry History of Armenia

Here is Part A of essay Three in the series: The Suffocation of Christian Communities in the Middle East from Paul Merkley, reprinted by permission of Paul and from The Bayview Review. See the links at the end for direct access to the rest of Paul’s work.

Christian individuals, Christian families, and historic Christian communities in the Middle East

As we contemplate the imminent suffocation of the Christian community in the Middle East, we have to keep in view two distinct but related historical processes.

One is the ubiquitous fact of attrition – the steady whittling down, one by one, of numbers of Christians everywhere, owing to defection, some of it voluntary, most of it not. As the days go by, individuals raised as Christians, persuaded by the benefits of submission (that is the literal meaning of Islam, the religion of the powerful) are defecting from the Church.

The other process involves intact communities of Christians,  made up of individuals  who draw their social identity from belonging to a conspicuously separate body that has worshipped together in a language distinct from the common language of the region, using a unique liturgy, in buildings heavily decorated (by Western standards) with distinctive works of religious art that they have cherished and protected from Muslim contempt for  fourteen centuries.

In centuries past, this latter process has been to some degree retarded by the circumstance that the political masters of the Arab world were well aware of benefits for their regimes that followed from the exceptionally high levels of literacy, education, professional accomplishment, economic success and extensive connections abroad, of these venerable communities; and for these reasons they drew them  into conspicuous roles in the public life. But precisely because of these accomplishments, these communities have always been objects of resentment. The political leaders have always had to tread a fine line as they sought to sustain these valued minority communities, while fending off complaint from the Muslim majority of appeasing the enemies of Allah. In moments of extraordinary crisis in the public life of the Arab world, we find shocking examples of sudden surrender by the political masters to the Muslim mobs resulting in campaigns of massacre consciously directed towards extirpation of one or other of these ancient Christian communities.

Two major extirpation campaigns of this kind that took place over the last century need examination here. One of these campaigns resulted in the absolute ejection from the Arab world of one of the most ancient Christian communities – the Armenians. The other resulted in the savage reduction of numbers and of political and social significance of the Assyrians, who still exist in scattered communities in parts of the Arab world, but who are being targeted for annihilation by the Islamist politicians who have come to power during the so-called Arab Spring.

Withdrawal of European protection of Christian minorities during the First World War

In my previous essay (“How European Empires came to the rescue of Christians and Jews in the Nineteenth Century”) I described how Britain’s government took up the cause of protection of the Jews and Christians of the Ottoman Empire, following the Damascus Blood Libel incident of 1840. There is some truth in the assertion by historians that the British used this self-appointed role task as a benign cover for the  “geopolitical” purpose  of causing the Sultan, the Sick Man of Europe,  to think every night before bed of what Britain could offer him as an ally against his own present and future enemies. It was, in plain words, an “imperialist” gesture. Still, despite this perfectly reasonable and honorable calculation, it developed that the Sultan was listening more  and more to the blandishments of the Germans, who wanted to build a major railroad for profit and for their own imperial interests in the region, and who would ultimately draw the Ottoman Empire into the First World War — on the losing side. An advantage enjoyed by the Germans in this early contest was that the servants of the Kaiser, unlike those of King Edward VII and King George V, were content to leave the rulers of the Ottoman Empire free to decide internal religious policies – such as how to handle their Christian minorities.

As British, French, German and eventually American presence increased on the ground, Christian minorities now had the same possibility as had the Jews of appeal to these external champions in defense of the principle of religious freedom that is  taken for granted in the West but which in the Middle East is trumped by the immemorial tradition of dhimmitude. But such resort to European opinion was made only in the most urgent situations. Local Christians were painfully aware that the greatest possible damage would follow if, by their complaint, they brought humiliation to Muslims, who would seek greater revenge the moment the Europeans’ attention turned to other matters – as it always did. More fundamentally, the indigenous  Christians feared appearing to make common cause with “missionaries,” “Crusaders,” Jews or “Zionists.”

European interventions on behalf of Jews inevitably brought to the minds of indigenous Christians their own ancient tradition of contempt for the Jews, following from the teaching of certain early theologians that God had cancelled all His promises to the Jews and replaced them with the one great inclusive Promise – which is in the Gospel.  Typically, therefore, the leaders of the Christian communities have never made  application for intervention by Europeans and Americans until their situation has become nearly hopeless – as we shall see in the case of the Armenians and the Assyrians.

A new enemy for Christian communities in the Middle East:  Turkish nationalism

As it happens, the story of European imperial interest in the Middle East coincides with the moment when the Turks, the dominant race in the Ottoman world, were succumbing to a type of national-chauvinism of the sort that was increasingly gaining ground in Eastern and Central Europe, the Balkans and Germany. Habits of contempt for lesser nationalities within their empire and fancy theories about primordial conflicts deriving from different times of entry into the region became fashionable among patriotic Turks, especially their intellectuals. As this occurred, attention was drawn to two Christian communities  on Ottoman soil that had the numbers and the coherence to present obstacles to the unlimited power of the Turks. These were the Armenians and the Assyrians.

A bird’s eye history of the Armenians

For perhaps a decade or two following the Ascension of Jesus Christ, all of the people who accepted the Christian message were Jews – most of them living in Jerusalem. Eventually, missions, headed originally by surviving apostles, went out beyond Judea and Samaria and sought conversion among the many neighboring communities who were,  like the Jews of Judea,  subject to Roman rule. Among the first of the Kingdoms of the region to accept Christian faith as its national faith were the Armenians, subjects of a prosperous Kingdom in the Western part of what is today Turkey.

This amounts to saying that the Armenians became Christians several centuries before the ancestors of most of the readers of these words. Yet it is safe to say that, until the 1890s, virtually no one in our part of the world, except for a few specialists in Ancient History, had ever heard of, let alone met, an Armenian.  Then suddenly beginning  in 1894 and continuing through the first two decades of the Twentieth century, there appeared in our newspapers a sequence of horrifying items about persecution of the Armenians of Turkey – said to  be Christians who had (somehow) got embedded in a Muslim Empire. The persecution was  so intense and so dedicated that it seemed that the Turks intended to remove the Armenians from the face of the earth.

The situation in Armenia became better known as,  between 1899-and 1917, about 50,000 Armenians entered the US, escaping several waves of what in European terms would be called pogroms  — the massacre of entire communities, instigated by local mobs, abetted by military and political authority.  When the term genocide came into use following World War Two, it was suggested by responsible historians that what overcame the Armenians was the original genocide.

As it happened, the Sultan and his regime, within whose Empire the first round of massacres of Armenians took place, had been on shaky ground for some decades already, when, in 1908, the regime fell to a coup d’etat conducted by a cabal of officers who called themselves the Young Turks. This, as it turned out, was just the first chapter in a confusing sequence of regime changes that settled after 1922 into the regime which is at least nominally still governing Turkey.  The Young Turks calculated, correctly, that the popularity of their new regime would by served by their taking violent action against the several non-Turkish communities. In this latter category the most despised of all were the Kurds, the Armenians and the Assyrians. The Armenians, because of their relative size and their relative prosperity, were the target of choice in the beginning. [David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York: Avon Books, 1989), 210-215.]

While the Turks looked down upon the Assyrians and the Armenians as fundamentally alien to the Ottoman world these nationalities had lived as distinct communities for many centuries before the Arabs arrived on the scene. As for the Kurds, they had come into  Anatolia – what we callTurkey today — as Muslim conquerors in the Seventh Century. Ironically, it was the Turks who were the late-comers; they had entered the region as conquerors about six centuries after the Kurds.

The masses of Turks despised all of these minority groups and had found ways for many centuries to make their lives intolerable. Given that Armenians and Assyrians were dhimmi people, there was no great difficulty about keeping them in line. The life of the Armenians was vividly described by William Ramsey, a visiting British scholar in 1890s:

Turkish rule … means unutterable contempt… The Armenians (and Greeks) were dogs and pigs… to be spat upon …. Conceive the inevitable result of  centuries of slavery, of subjection to insult  and scorn, centuries in which nothing belonged to the Armenian, neither his property, his house, his life, his person, nor his family, was sacred or safe from … capricious, unprovoked violence – to resist which by violence meant death.  [Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, New York: HarperCollins, (2003), as quoted in Fromkin, 211-215.]

In undertaking the task of eliminating the Armenians, the new regime was assisted during the years of the Great War (1914-1918) by popular suspicion (not  entirely unfounded)  that Armenian civilians were abetting the enemy, the Russians – who were, in turn, allies of Great Britain and France. Under cover of preventing massive Armenian betrayal of the national interest, the Turks conducted a popularly-supported pogrom  remembered as “the Armenian massacre” of 1915. Those not killed at once during the initial campaign of rape and scattered killing were driven through mountains and deserts without food, drink or shelter to locations outside the borders of the Ottoman Empire.

Armenian sources today  put the numbers of deaths as high as 1,500,000. Although the estimate may be high – who can really know? — there can be no disputing the result: the liquidation of up to one-half of the Armenian people of the time and the disappearance of  the homeland of the Armenians. [ ]

The remnant who fled across the border into land ruled by Russia, did so just in time to be incorporated into the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – a declared atheist regime, but whose leaders had the good sense to permit a considerable degree of “cultural” independence, thus providing, unwittingly, for the emergence when the USSR itself collapsed in 1990-1991, of a new “Armenia,” still clinging to its religious traditions.

 The legacy of the Armenian genocide

The irreducible significance of this event is best borne out in the remark of Adolf Hitler to his generals as they went off to carry out their assigned tasks in connection with the invasion of Poland in August 1939 and the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem:  “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” []

Turkey, the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, doggedly refuses to accept that anything resembling “genocide” has ever occurred on Turkish soil. Nonetheless, to date, the legislatures of twenty countries have officially taken note of the Armenian Genocide. Polls in Turkey bear out that the overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens today have either never heard of or deny on principle the story of an Armenian Massacre. To hew to this denial requires rejection of abundant historical documentation (beginning with reports by American officials on the scene and including massive amounts of photographic evidence easily drawn from the internet.) All this clearly fits the pattern of “Holocaust denial” in the Western world – with the difference that Holocaust deniers are a generally-despised minority among us, while Armenian genocide-denial involves virtually the entire population of Turkey, directed by its government.

A considerable section of academics in Canada continues to express skepticism about the “alleged” Armenian Holocaust. In fact, the position one takes on this issue is one of the best clues to one’s place along the left-right spectrum in Canada. Anti-Americans, especially those disposed to suspect American governmental conspiracies, find sinister coincidence in the circumstance that it was an American diplomat – a Jewish one at that — Woodrow Wilson’s Ambassador to Istanbul, Henry Morgenthau, who first raised the charge of intentional racial annihilation against the Turks in 1915, and it was the American State Department which sold us on the WMDs in Iraq, at a time when American foreign policy was so clearly directed by Jewish Neo-Conservatives. Anti-Zionist intellectuals, many of them Jewish, speak of the Holocaust-guilt industry that promotes the theme of Armenian Holocaust so as to weaken the charge of special pleading about the Holocaust of the European Jews.

Muslims everywhere in the world are convinced that defamation of the memories of patriotic Turks who acted for the sake of national security against the subversive Armenians before and during World War One is just another facet of the campaign that the Crusader states have conducted for centuries for the purpose of defamation of Islam.

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