Cause for Concern in Turkey: Recent attacks aimed at Armenians, or at Christians in general?

Several assaults against Armenians in Turkey over the past month have raised concerns and stirred a wave of outrage not only among Armenians, but also Turkish human rights advocates, who held an act of protest Sunday calling for “consistency in investigating the assaults and murders on ethnic grounds”.

Pro-Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament, representative of Peace and Democracy party Sebahat Tuncel and independent MP, member of the Commission on Human Rights Ertugrul Kurkcu declared during the protest that the assaults were hate crimes motivated by strong anti-Armenian sentiments and that “the police is at fault for their inertness”.

On December 28, in her home at Istanbul’s Samatia district largely populated by Armenians, 85-year-old Maritsa Kucuk was brutally murdered. Her son’s testimony claims that the perpetrators had “carved” a cross with a knife on the old woman’s chest.

Some ten days earlier in the same district an 87-year-old native Armenian woman, Turfanda Ashik was assaulted and brutally beaten.

On January 6 (Armenian Christmas), another native Armenian woman escaped an attempted assault on her way to church. With her own resistance and some support from aside she managed to find refuge in the church.

On January 22, again at Samatia district, near his house 83-year-old Sultan Aykar became a victim of assault and lost vision in one eye caused by beating.

Turkish human rights advocates are convinced that the crimes are of “racist anti-Armenian character”, however it is unclear yet whether the “racist sentiments” are against Armenians only, or Christians in general.

Editor of the Armenian version of Istanbul-based Agos daily Bagrat Estukian believes “these are hate crimes” as a reaction prior to the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide to be marked in 2015.
The Istanbul branch of Turkey’s Human Rights Association has published a separate report in which several Samatia residents stress that they are “afraid” and that for as long as “the word ‘Armenian’ is used as a swear word, such incidents will keep happening”.

By various census results there are 50,000-60,000 Armenians living in Turkey today, the majority of them in Istanbul; Armenians there have a patriarchy, 16 schools, more than 30 churches, 3 newspapers (one of them 100-years-old) and two hospitals.

Despite the constant fear and atmosphere of ethnic discrimination, the Armenian community of Turkey keeps staying in what they call their “historic homeland”.

“Such problems have always existed, but the atmosphere of fear now is really tangible,” Istanbul-based Heriknaz Avagian, initiator and principle of the special Armenian school for the children of illegal immigrants, told ArmeniaNow.

The year of 2007 became a watershed in the lives of Istanbul-Armenians, when editor-in-chief of Agos daily Hrant Dink was assassinated near his newsroom.

As Turkish Armenian Arus Yumul, sociology professor and head of chair at one of Istanbul’s biggest universities (around 12,000 students), explains “Dink’s murder awakened not only us Armenians, but also Turks, who started showing more interest in the dark pages of their history,” however this “awakening of consciousness” has also had a counter-effect.
Months after Dink’s murder Istanbul’s St Astvatsatsin (Holy Virgin) church suffered an armed attack when a gunman opened fire during liturgy, luckily with no casualties.

In 2011, on April 24 – Remembrance Day for the victims of the Armenian Genocide – in the army a Turkish soldier shot dead his fellow private Sevag Sahin Balikci. On the day of the funeral his parents said it was an accident, but during the trial, the last hearing of which took place on January 25, they declared that “Sevak was murdered for being Armenian, that day one Armenian had to be killed, it had been decided so.”

During the same 2011 a taxi driver physically abused an Armenian woman: he called her an “infidel”, beat her and threw out of his car. After this case the police stated that it was a matter of minutes to take the driver into custody, because both the vehicle number and the taxi service were known. More than a year has passed and nobody has been held accountable.

These recent cases have had strong reaction in Armenia, some even drew parallels with the murder of Kurdish women in France during the same period, committed in the highlight of negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan.

However, expert in Turkish studies Ruben Safrastyan, head of the Institute of Eastern Studies at the National Academy of Sciences, believes that the assaults are anti-Christian rather than anti-Armenian.

“The Turkish society is undergoing a period of change, on the one hand it is the desire for growing awareness about the Genocide among some circles, on the other it is the extremist pro-religious, pro-Islamic sentiments growing deeper and as counter-effect the anti-Christian and anti-Armenian wave is getting bigger,” says Safrastyan, adding that the government policy is creating fertile soil for all of this.