DIYARBAKIR, TURKEY — A recently restored church has become a focal point for ethnic Armenians seeking to rediscover their cultural identity and faith in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. The region was once home to a large Armenian population. Most perished during mass expulsions and pogroms during World War I by Turkey’s Ottoman rulers.
The St. Giragos Armenian Orthodox Church is located in the back streets of Diyarbakır’s ancient Sur quarter. It was derelict and abandoned for decades until restored to its full splendor two years ago.
Hundreds attended the celebration of the church’s saint’s day in September. Even though the church is awaiting an appointment of a priest, Armin Demirciyan, who looks after the church, claims it has already become an important symbol of ethnic Armenian identity.
"It means everything to me. It’s our history. It’s our culture and it’s our legacy,” he said. “It’s the gift of our ancestors to us. As an Armenian I can see myself here. I was raised as a Kurd, I knew nothing of my Armenian identity.”
Demirciyan's family history is a familiar one. His father was only a child when his parents were killed in mass pogroms against ethnic Armenians during World War I, by then-Turkey’s Ottoman rulers. Demirciyan’s father, like many other Armenian children, was taken in by local families, and brought up as a Muslim.
Some ethnic Armenians are now converting to Christianity, like Melike Gunal, who regularly visits the church. For years, she said she hid her identity, but that the re-opening of the church helped her to publicly embrace her identity and faith.
“I come here three or four times a week to light a candle. It’s a Christmas miracle for me to find Christianity and this church,” she said. “Even before, when there was no roof, I would come here and sit and cry. But now there is a roof and it's restored; it’s so special for me.”
Gunal’s father - a political activist - was killed in the 1990s during the Turkish state’s war against the Kurdish rebel group the PKK. Gunal said it was that fight by Kurds for greater minority rights, though, that gave the chance for Armenians to assert their identity
"It all came out with the Kurdish struggle for there identify, that opened the door to us," she said. "How could they deny our identity when fighting for theirs? Before we could only utter our grandparent’s Armenian names at home, from a very early age we understood to hide our identity."
The local mayor, Abdullah Demirtas of the pro-Kurdish BDP, contributed $600,000 of municipal funds to the church’s restoration. He said it was part of a policy of encouraging diversity.
“In past years, the state wanted to turn this region, this area, into a single Turkish Muslim identity, by not only suppressing Kurds, but all these communities, all these religions and languages,” he said. “We want to show this diversity can live together.”
Symbol of ethnic heritage
But St. Giragos church, as a symbol of the region’s ethnic Armenian heritage, raises difficult questions for Kurds. That's because some Kurds then played a prominent role in the killings of Armenians.
Armenia says 1.5 million Armenians were killed during World War I by troops of Turkey's Ottoman Empire. Turkey says Armenians were killed as part of a civil war and maintains the death toll is exaggerated. It says the deaths do not constitute genocide.
At St. Giragos there is a small photo exhibition recording the once vibrant Armenian community. It includes family portraits and photos of people drinking wine and smoking water pipes. A group of Kurdish and ethnic Armenian teenagers is looking at the images, aware most of those pictured probably perished in a mass killing.
For Baran Dogan, a Kurd, the church is a place to face up to the past. “We are very much aware what happened to the Armenians by Kurds under the order of the Ottoman state,” he said. “I did not know my close friend was Armenian, and he did not know either until recently. When I come to this church I feel it as a small apology, although it never can compensate for what they’ve been through.”
By 2015, a full time priest will be appointed to St. Giragos. That's another small step in helping to re-establish the city’s once diverse society.