Ancient Armenian church at risk in Kurdish uprising

By Hannah Lucinda Smith
The Times

The caretaker of the ancient Armenian church of Surp Giragos listened helplessly as, on the other side of the barricades, an explosion blew out the windows of his building and echoed through the narrow streets.”There were clashes around the church, but they had stopped in the past few days,” Gaffur Turkay told The Times.

Surp Giragos, which was closed during the Armenian genocide of 1915 and reopened in 2011, is caught in the middle of an urban war, here in the historic city of Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of the Kurdish-majority southeast of Turkey. The security forces are trying to quash an uprising led by fighters linked to the PKK, a Kurdish separatist militia.

Most of Sur, the neighbourhood within the Unesco-listed city walls,has been under lockdown for the past month. Surp Giragos is behind the blockades, as are dozens of mosques, ancient bath houses and coaching inns. Extensive damage has already been wreaked on many of the oldbuildings.

Mr Turkay has been unable to reach the church to check the damage since the curfew began. Today, he and the two dozen others who make up Diyarbakir’s tiny Armenian Christian community will have to begin Orthodox Christmas celebrations in their homes, rather than under the splendour of Surp Giragos’s arches. “People will visit each other,give presents, but we can’t do anything about this situation,” Mr Turkay said.

The Armenians in southeast Turkey are descendants of survivors of the 1915 genocide, in which 1.5 million Christians were massacred and displaced as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. It is a chapter that continues to traumatise and divide the country. Most of the killings were carried out by Kurdish soldiers on the orders of Ottoman generals, although many Armenian children were sheltered by sympathetic Kurdish families, and then raised as Muslims. The Kurdish southeast has made efforts to integrate and support the Armenian revival, but many Turks still deny that the genocide happened.

In recent years, as the grandchildren of those converts have rediscovered their roots, some have chosen to return to Christianity.

Armen Demircian is another who was brought up as a Muslim, and converted to Christianity when he discovered that his father was a genocide survivor. “My grandfather and three uncles were massacred,but a Kurdish family saved my father, who was four years old,” he said. “They hid him in their house, raised him, and treated him like a son. Until a certain age I felt Kurdish, but after I found out, I wanted to live as an Armenian.”

In southeastern Turkey, the Armenians are once again trapped in the middle. “If this war extends and gets worse, it will destroy the Kurds and the Armenians,” Mr Demircian said.
“For now we are stepping back and watching.”

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