It was on a hot Sunday in the summer when I visited St. Giragos Church, located within the historic walls of the city of Diyarbakir. A small crowd gathered inside the building, which had recently been renovated. That morning, I not only got the chance to meet new people, but was also acquainted with new ways of self-identifying.
I met Ramzi Demir, a construction-equipment vendor and Kurdish Muslim who is well aware of his Armenian roots. I also met Chetin Yilmaz, an ethnic Turk from the city of Gallipoli. Yilmaz was sent to the southeast of the country to teach Turkish “to help Kurds be good Turkish citizens. However, they opted for the Christian religion instead,” as he put it.
A group of young people visiting the church included Nisreen and Habon, who decided to come after they discovered their Armenian origins. I also met Armin Demerjian, the deacon of the Church of St. Giragos. He was once called Abdur Rahim Zorusselan, before he returned to his original religion. Armin welcomed me with a joyful grin and told me in Armenian, “Welcome, my little brother!”
Demerjian is in his mid 50s. He was born in the town of Liga, north of Diyarbakir, from where his ancestors hail. His family was exterminated during the massacres of 1915, but a five-year-old child named Hocep survived, saved by influential Turkish tribal leader in the region, Haji Zubair.
When Hocep grew up, his name was changed to Abdullah. He converted to Islam and married the daughter of Haji Zubair. He became a famous baker in the town of Liga. Everyone saw him as a good Armenian man.
I walked with Armin around the church. The building, which was meticulously built seven centuries ago, has been renovated, adding a touch of beauty to the impoverished neighborhood. We went to a hall where the walls were decorated with photographs of the Armenian way of life in Diyarbakir before the great massacre. There hung a photo of two Armenian schools, one for boys and one for girls, and a photo of the newspaper Independent Tigris with pictures of craftsmen, coppersmiths, jewelry makers, weavers and a brass band. There was also an old postcard in French portraying the Armenian neighborhood and the high church bell towers. The black-and-white photographs created a sad memorial, not only because they brought back memories of the past, but because they remind us that an entire way of life has been wiped away.
There was once a large Armenian community in Diyarbakir. Most of its members were craftsmen and traders. In 1915, when the Committee of Union and Progress, the powerful party that pushed the Ottoman Empire to fight in the First World War, decided to get rid of the Armenians living in the empire. Approximately 120,000 Armenians in the province were sent outside the city walls and massacred. The survivors, mostly women and orphans, went to camps in the Syrian desert. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Armenians living in villages and towns in the province moved to Diyarbakir to form a new, small community. More left the villages after the war broke out in the southeast of the country between the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Turkish army. Today, a descendant of the survivors is forming a new Armenian community in this historic city.
When I started to take pictures, Armin grabbed an Armenian-language instruction book and held it to his chest in front of the camera.
Armin’s son, Hassan Zor Aslan, recently finished his university education and wants to become a teacher. He is fluent in English and Turkish, and his mother tongue is Kurdish. When coffee was served, Hassan did not take a cup. It was Ramadan, and Hassan was fasting. While his father was forced to rediscover his Armenian past and deep Christian roots, Hassan, 21, found his path through Islam.
“We are Muslims, but we know that we are Armenians,” he told me. In 2006, when the students of Diyarbakir revolted against the Turkish police and the army there, Hassan was sent to his uncle’s house in the town of Bursa in western Turkey to continue his education away from the trouble.
Hassan continued, “I faced an identity crisis there. There, I decided to be a Muslim.” It was there that he also decided to become a professor. When asked how he sees his father, who returned to the Armenian Apostolic Church, he said, “I am happy to see my father getting back in touch with his Armenian identity. However, I am afraid not only of the state but also of militant groups.”
Gafur Torqay is the one who pushed for the renovation of the church. His story is no different from those of the others. His father is called Ba Ohanian, and he hails from the mountainous area of Sason, northeast of Diyarbakir. During the genocide, everyone there was killed, and only three children survived: a girl and two boys. The girl became a refugee in Syria and emigrated from there to Armenia, while the boys remained in Turkey and converted to Islam.
He proudly stated, “Thanks to the two boys, the number of our family members reached 500. These boys spoke Kurdish at home, but when they were sent to school they were prohibited from speaking the Kurdish and Armenian languages and forced to communicate in Turkish.” Gafur criticized Turkish naturalization policies, saying, “After being forced to become a Kurd, we were taught how to become Turks.”
Furthermore, with the emergence of the Kurdish national identity in the past decade, Armenian descendants who had changed their religion claimed their right to the Armenian identity regardless of religious affiliation.
Gafur recalls the first time he visited St. Giragos Church in the 1980s. Back then, there were 30 families living in the vicinity of the Armenian church in the Sur District of Diyarbakir, known as the Infidels District. This is also the title of a novel written by Mgrdich Margossian, who wrote about the life of the Armenian community.
In this city, Gafur met his wife and his family. He believes that the renovation of the church — which was destroyed after the departure of the last Armenian family — is the most important step yet. The church has been renovated thanks to the efforts of a small group of people who exerted tremendous efforts to collect the necessary funds. The municipality of Diyarbakir, controlled by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, paid a third of the renovation costs. The church was reopened in October 2011, with thousands of Armenians coming from all over the world to participate in the event.
Today, the Diyarbakir municipality has begun organizing classes to teach the Armenian language. In 2012, 35 students were registered in language classes and in the following year this number rose to 65. Gafur pointed out that 80% of the students are Muslim Armenians, while there is a Christian or Kurdish Armenian minority.
Gafur recalled how his neighbors found out he was of Armenian descent and how they thought that he and his family had converted to another religion. Families with Armenian roots try to arrange marriages among themselves, he added, stressing, “We are the third generation after the genocide. The second generation knew nothing about Armenian heritage. They were afraid. If we do not act to revive the Armenian identity here, we will lose it.” He hopes that the young people of Armenian descent rediscover their original identity and Armenian culture without questioning their Islamic religious identity.
From there, Gafur took me to St. Sarkis Church. At the entrance, we could see that a Kurdish family had taken residence in the few rooms that remained undestroyed. The architectural style is reminiscent of St. Giragos with its beautiful domes, though wrecked. Projects are in the works for the renovation of this church, too.
At the altar, Gafur pointed to a hole and angrily said, “They are trying to find gold. I was here two weeks ago; this hole was not there.” Similar holes can be found in Armenian churches across eastern Turkey as residents still search for old Armenian gold after 98 years.
Then we headed to the Armenian cemetery. Years ago, the famous musician Aram Dikran wanted to be buried there after his death, but the Turkish state did not allow it. Today, two stones are placed as a sign for the chosen cemetery of Aram Dikran