“We are now free” said each of the twelve Anatolian Armenians who were baptised on 9 May in Istanbul. They are just a few of the many who are publicly declaring their decision to follow Christ after their ancestors were forced to convert to Islam or be massacred in the Armenian and Assyrian genocide a century ago.
Descendants of Turkey’s Christian minorities, who became Muslims during the Armenian Genocide, are returning to the Christianity of their grandparents and great-grandparents and being baptised as they discover their history and decide to follow Christ. Many thought they were of Turkish Muslim heritage like their neighbours because their ancestors had hidden their true identities for fear of mistreatment and prejudice. Christian leaders have told Barnabas that, discovering their Armenian and Christian roots, some have been relieved to find a reason for feeling that despite their Muslim religion and names they were somehow different from the majority and “something was not quite right”.
Although Christians in Turkey died in huge numbers during the Genocide, some of the affected Armenians, Assyrians and Ottoman Greeks chose to convert to Islam in order to save their lives. Some of these tried to keep alive a tiny remnant of Christian faith, holding on to traditions and passing them on to the next generations. “At Easter time, my mother used to give us painted eggs but wouldn’t tell us this was a Christian ritual,” remembers Miran Pirgic. “All of us had Muslim names. My family used to listen to Radio Yerevan [Yerevan is the capital of Armenia]. But some in the village heard about all this and complained.”
Over 1.5 million Armenians, 750,000 Assyrians and 1.5 million Ottoman Greeks were killed over the 30-year period of the Genocide, which reached its peak in 1915. Those who converted to Islam had their conversions registered with the government and were given new Muslim names. Women from the Christian minorities were forced to marry Muslim men, and children were adopted by Muslim families. When one group of Armenian Christian young men, imprisoned in a church in Habousi in 1914, refused to convert, declaring “We are Christians”, Turkish soldiers set the church on fire killing all those inside. Some of their wives were watching from outside the church building.
Turkish Armenian conversions have been taking place in eastern Turkey for a number of years, but renouncing Islam is risky since all schools of Islamic law hold that apostasy from Islam by adult males carries a death sentence. But some have bravely made their new faith public as a recent report on the Middle Eastern news site Al-Monitor describes the conversion to Christianity of many Armenians who had been living as Alevis (a branch of Shia Islam common in Turkey).