A football match September between Turkey and Armenia has become the
unlucky impetus for hopes of reconciliation between the two countries.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenians died in 1915 during forced removals
from what is now Eastern Turkey, but Turkey denies this was
"genocide". Caught in the middle is Turkey's surviving Armenian
minority, but possible
rapprochement is giving hope of a brighter future.
The recent World Cup qualifier between Armenia and Turkey was not just any football match.
was a landmark in the troubled history of relations between Turkey and
Armenia, bringing together their two leaders for the first time in
nearly 100 years.
"It was very courageous of the
president of Armenia to invite the president of Turkey to a football
game, and it was very courageous for the president of Turkey to accept
the invitation," said Ergemen Bagis, the Turkish prime minister's
foreign affairs adviser. "There were security implications, domestic
policy implications. There was opposition from the opposing parties.
But now the two presidents very publicly are talking to each other and
trying to find ways to cooperate.
That meeting has sparked
hopes of thawing relations between Turkey and Armenia. Nowhere are
those hopes higher than among Turkey's mainly Christian Armenian
There are about 70,000 Armenians in Turkey. Based
mainly in Istanbul, the Armenian Orthodox Church is at the center of
their cultural lives. Its leader, Patriarch Mesrop Mutafian, says
Turkish Armenians walk a fine line between their two identities.
myself was born in Istanbul and one could not divide oneself from
Armenian and Turkish," he said. "It is sort of together. So any time
Turkey has problems, I feel myself a part of it. But sometimes there
is bitterness, which comes from history. Bitterness problems which
have not been created by our generations."
The word bitterness
is carefully chosen. What the patriarch is referring to is the most
contentious point in Turkish history - the mass killing of Armenians by
Ottoman Turks during World War I.
"The Armenian official
position is that up to 1.5 million Armenian's were massacred or some
how or other removed from their homes," said Professor Selim Deringil
of Istanbul's Bosphorus University. "The Turkish official position is
that there was a civil war in which the Armenians sided with the
Turkish enemy, Russia, and sort of acted as a fifth column for the
Russians - and these two opposite camps, these two opposite views are
not in a state of dialogue."
Even today just saying that a
genocide took place can land you in court in Turkey on the charge of
insulting the Turkish state. But an online petition by a group of
Turkish academics and artists has sparked a national debate.
petition apologizes for what it says is the silence of Turks over the
great catastrophe suffered by Armenians in 1915. Several thousand
people have signed up. Professor Cengiz Aktar is one of the petition
"It is not normal that all those people do not exist
where they used to live," he said. "There is untold history or untold
stories and we are not able to talk about them for the past 90 plus
Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the petition saying Turkey has nothing to apologize for.
leaders of the main opposition parties supported Erdogan's stance,
President Abdullah Gul said it is an exercise in freedom of
expression. A heated debate is being waged in the media.
editor of Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, Etyen Mahcupiyan, said such
passion is an indication that many in Turkish society perceive the
country's small Christian minorities as a threat.
predecessor, Hrant Dink, was gunned down outside the newspaper's office
last year. His murder happened after he was convicted for insulting
Turkey for writing an article on the genocide controversy.
Mahcupyan says the new Armenian-Turkish dialogue offers a way of breaking this mistrust of Christians.
do not know each [other] and it is much easier to be afraid of
something you do not know, especially if there is a official ideology
that tells you that you have to feeling afraid and so on," he said.
"Especially if there is a history which is told to you, which say that
those Armenian and Greeks behaved in an improper way."
when you start to know people, when you start to hear their own
stories, then you I think you come to your story again. You start to
rethink what happened to you and what you have done to other people and
so on so forth and this is a normalization within the Turkish
identity. I hope this normalization between Armenia and Turkey will
bring a normalization within the Turkish identity this would be the
most beneficial thing for Turkey," he added.
Such a message of
hope, experts say, is important for Turkey's bid to join the European
Union. Improved relations with Armenia is seen by Brussels as an
important step toward full EU membership. While Turkey is
overwhelmingly Muslim, the presence of a Christian minority gives
evidence of successful co-existence.