Turkey’s Armenians demand rights, not tolerance from State

The historical Armenian church on Akhtamar Island in the province of Van was not returned to the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey but opens for worship once a year.

The historical Armenian church on Akhtamar Island in the province of Van was not returned to the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey but opens for worship once a year.

YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN , İSTANBUL
2/10/2011

A new study, which explores various issues faced by Turkey’s Armenians in the republican period, asserts that Armenian citizens of the country are demanding their rights, not tolerance.

“When fighting with discrimination, one thing that should never be used but which we frequently hear is the concept of ‘tolerance’ in reference to Ottoman history and with the view that different religions and cultures have lived ‘side-by-side in peace’ for centuries on these lands,” said the report, “Hearing Out Turkey’s Armenians: Problems, Demands, and Suggestions for Solution,” written by academics Günay Göksu Özdoğan and Ohannes Kılıçdağı for the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV).

Kılıçdağı said “tolerance” implies a favor given from authorities at the top levels to lower level citizens who are “not much liked.”

“Legitimacy should come from rights, not from tolerance,” he said and added that making a new constitution which does not have any perceived references to ethno-cultural identities is important in that regard.

“An understanding of equal citizenship is needed,” he also said.

Currently, Article 66 of the Constitution says, “Everyone bound to the Turkish state through the bond of citizenship is a Turk.” By many in Turkey, including Armenians, this — especially the emphasis on “Turk” — is perceived as allowing a discriminatory mentality that is against rights-based inclusiveness and equality.

The 170-page study was prepared in light of information and views gathered during four workshops this and last year with participants — Turkey’s Armenians, including teachers, journalists, heads of foundations, academics and professionals — as well as discussions between the participants.

The subheadings of the broad study are: Armenian Identity and Discrimination, Education; The Patriarchate and the Patriarchal Election; Violations of Freedom of Religion and Religious Rights; Foundations and Associations: Legal Status and Ownership-Management-Organization Issues; Confronting History; and Armenia and Diaspora.

According to participants of the study, it is no longer enough for the government to remove the barriers that make it difficult for Armenians to keep their identities and cultures alive, or that restrict educational opportunities; direct support of the government is needed for the survival of the Armenian education and culture.

Kılıçdağı said all participants agree that Turkey has changed in a positive way in the last 10 years but added that the “openings” and initiatives of the governments are seen as “superficial” and aimed at increasing the potential votes of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as well as that the whole process was excessively dependent on the will and personality of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The study said some practices reinforces this perception. For example, the historical Armenian church on Akhtamar Island in Turkey’s eastern province of Van was not returned to the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey but opened for worship for only one day a year. In that regard, the following words on the Akhtamar Church by the TESEV study participant are noteworthy:

“The Armenian community, which has avoided visibility in the Turkish society and which has isolated itself throughout the republican history due to discriminatory policies and attitudes, started to raise its voice since the mid 1990s, and its demands for equal citizenship and respect for the Armenian identity reverberated in the democratization process starting in the 2000s.”

The participants of the study also said they were concerned about the perception of Armenians; namely, that the word “Armenian” is used as an insult.

“Whenever an Armenian becomes visible in the public domain, s/he is perceived as the collective representative and spokesperson of the Armenians of Turkey or even of all Armenians. For example, an Armenian appearing on a discussion program on TV is perceived as if speaking on behalf of all Armenians. In fact, this approach has, to some extent, been accepted by the Turkish Armenians; hence, Armenian individuals pay extra attention to what they do and what they say, so that ‘nothing bad is reflected on the Armenians’.”

The study points out that the word “Armenian” is used as an insult from time to time either by bureaucrats and politicians or by the people at large.

“In 1997, during the government of Tansu Çiller, then-Interior Minister Meral Akşener of the True Path Party [DYP] used the expression ‘Ermeni dölü’ [Armenian progeny] to insult Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] leader Abdullah Öcalan, an incident that is still remembered to this day. Likewise, a few years ago, Republican People’s Party [CHP] İzmir deputy Canan Arıtman ‘accused’ President Abdullah Gül of being Armenian. And Gül did indeed perceive it as an insult and sued Arıtman.”

The study included suggestions to civil society organizations, media and universities. One such suggestion is about “confronting 1915.” This part of the study says: “The matter is confronting the dark phenomenon that led to the mass annihilation of Armenians in the last period of Ottoman history. Tangible steps should be taken not only to reveal the facts but also to repair and indemnify what happened.”

There are also recommendations to the Armenian community of Turkey. One is: “Instead of accepting a passive position within the ‘community’ and instead of sufficing with the mediation of the patriarchate, voicing problems in the public realm and spreading civil citizenship initiatives would be effective in reaching a solution.”

The study also has suggestions for Parliament, political parties, the government and the bureaucracy. Some highlights are:

The new constitution should contain a more inclusive definition of citizenship that stands at an equal distance to all ethnic groups.

Recognition of and respect for cultural diversity and differences should be adopted as a constitutional principle.

Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) should be rearranged to deter and punish hate speech, and hate crimes should be addressed not only as acts that threaten “public order” or “public peace” but as something that is wrong in principle.

Armenian schools, together with other minority schools, should be granted a permanent special status and new legislation should include the principle of positive discrimination.

New legislation is required pursuant to the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child should be adopted so that children from Armenia can receive an education in their native language.

History textbooks should be free of narratives containing “hatred and hostility” and a discriminatory discourse against Armenians.

Equality with Muslims should be observed in a large area ranging from opening and maintaining places of worship to educating clergy.

The government should stand behind the circular (dated May 13, 2010) issued by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with regard to the elimination of problems encountered by non-Muslim minorities, and negative and restrictive practices of the administration should be investigated.

The Armenian Patriarchate of İstanbul should be granted legal personality.

Non-Muslim representatives should be included in the Minority Issues Review Board, and/or a Minorities Department which will address the problems of and advise non-Muslim minorities should be established.

The public authority should prepare the environment for the removal of ideological boundaries in history-writing, clear the path for academic studies, and remove the potential penal obstacles to translation/publishing foreign-language publications in Turkish.

Putting into effect the protocols signed for the opening of borders between Turkey and Armenia will contribute to the normalization of relations between the two countries.

The parliamentary investigation into the murder of Hrant Dink should be deepened to expose all the perpetrators and individuals responsible.

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