Accessibility links

Football Match Provides Opening for Healing Turkish-Armenian Relations


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.

It 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 minority.

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.

"I 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.

The 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 organizers.

"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 years."

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the petition saying Turkey has nothing to apologize for.

While 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.

The 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.

Mahcupiyan's 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.

"People 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."

"But 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.

XS
SM
MD
LG