News / Europe

Armenian Church Aims to Heal Past in Kurdish Region of Turkey

Dorian Jones
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.”

Tragic history

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.

You May Like

Myanmar Fighting Poses Dilemma for China

To gain some insight into conflict, VOA’s Steve Herman spoke with Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at Myanmar Peace Center More

Australia Concerned Over Islamic State 'Brides'

Canberra believes there are between 30 and 40 Australian women who have taken part in terror attacks or are supporting the Islamic State terror network More

Recreational Marijuana Use Now Legal in Washington, DC

Law allows adults 21 and over to privately possess and smoke 0.05 kilogram of pot, and to grow small amounts of the plant More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More