The World

Ethnicities and religion in Turkey

With this article, historian Gerardo Ferrara concludes a series of three studies in which he delves into the culture, history and religion of Turkey.

Gerardo Ferrara-May 3, 2024-Reading time: 7 minutes

A woman holds her daughter in front of the ancient cathedral (now mosque) of Hagia Sophia ©OSV

In a previous article we speak of the Medz Yeghern (Armenian: "great evil"), the first genocide of the 20th century, a series of brutal campaigns carried out against ethnic Armenians, first by Sultan Abdülhamid II, between 1894 and 1896, and then by the Young Turk government, between 1915 and 1916, which resulted in the death of approximately one and a half million of the two million Armenians living in the territories of the Sublime Porte.

Armenians, Kurds and Greeks: a thorn in the flesh

Despite the fact that historians around the world agree on the atrocity and numbers of this genocide, Turkey refuses to acknowledge it and Turkish intellectuals who dare to speak about it in their country continue to run great risks. Even Turkey's 2006 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Orhan Pamuk, was charged with "vilification of Turkish national identity" under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which deals with freedom of expression (or, in this case, lack of freedom of expression), as was anyone who dares to speak about it. The same had happened to Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin already sentenced in 2005 to six months in prison for his articles on the Armenian genocide. Dink, whose life had been threatened on several occasions, was finally murdered in 2007 as he was leaving the editorial office of his newspaper Agos (the trial of his murderer brought to light a whole series of covert links between the State, the secret services and ultra-nationalist groups in a secret organization called Ergenekon which was also allegedly linked to the murder of Father Andrea Santoro in 2006).

Another burning and unresolved issue is that of the Kurds, an Indo-European-speaking people (the Kurdish language is very close to Persian), who live in eastern Anatolia, western Iran, northern Iraq, Syria, Armenia and other adjacent areas, an area generally known as Kurdistan. It is estimated that the Kurds today number between 30 and 40 million.

Originally a nomadic people, the Kurds became sedentary after the First World War (they were induced by the Young Turks to participate in the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian genocides and to settle precisely on the properties of the deported and murdered), when international treaties placed borders on the vast territory in which they had hitherto moved freely to allow the seasonal migration of herds. Although the Treaty of Sèvres, drawn up in 1920 and never ratified, provided for the creation of an independent Kurdistan, the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne (1923) did not mention the subject again, and the historical homeland of the Kurds remains divided among several states, against which various Kurdish separatist movements have arisen over time.

Turkish citizens of Kurdish ethnicity have always been discriminated against by the governments in Ankara, which have tried to deprive them of their cultural identity by describing them as "mountain Turks", banning their language (sometimes described as a simple Turkish dialect) and forbidding them to wear traditional clothes. The various Turkish administrations have also repressed - most often violently - any autonomist push in the eastern provinces (they continue, for example, to intervene by excluding candidates belonging to Kurdish parties in local elections, including the last one in March 2024), while encouraging the emigration of Kurds towards the western and urbanized part of the country, in order to allow a decrease in the concentration of this population in the mountainous and rural regions.

Throughout the 20th century there were several episodes of insubordination and rebellion by the Kurdish population and, in 1978, Abdullah Öcalan formed the Kurdistan Workers' Party (known by its Kurdish acronym, PKK), a Marxist-inspired party whose declared goal is the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

Since the late 1980s, PKK militants, active mainly in eastern Anatolia, have consistently engaged in guerrilla operations against the central government and frequent acts of terrorism.

PKK attacks and government retaliation escalated in the 1980s to the point of triggering a full-fledged civil war in eastern Turkey. After the capture of leader Ocalan in 1999, PKK activities were drastically reduced.

Since 2002, due to EU pressure, Ankara has authorized the use of the Kurdish language in television broadcasting and education. However, Turkey continues to carry out military operations against the PKK, including incursions into northern Iraq, to this day.

The Greeks of Anatolia

Before World War I, the Greeks were a thriving community in Asia Minor, a land they had inhabited since the time of Homer. They numbered an estimated 2.5 million, with at least 2,000 Greek Orthodox churches, mostly in Constantinople, along the Aegean coast (especially in Smyrna) and in Pontus (northern region of Anatolia, along the Black Sea coast, whose capital, Trebizond, was the center of the Empire of the same name, headed by the Comnenian dynasty, the last to fall under Ottoman rule).

The rise of Turkish nationalism at the beginning of the 20th century exacerbated the anti-Greek sentiment that was already creeping into the Ottoman Empire, to the point that the regime of the Young Turks, led by the Three Pashas (the Freemasons Ismail Enver, Ahmed Jemal and Mehmed Talat) ordered, and Enver was mainly responsible for it, the three great genocides (Armenian, Assyrian and Greek) precisely to "cleanse" the Empire of all Christian minorities. Enver, already responsible for the massacre of the Armenians, declared to the British ambassador Sir Henry Morgenthau that he took full responsibility for the death of millions of Christians.

As for the Greeks, the catastrophe took the form of an open genocide, in Pontus, between 1914 and 1923, when the local Greek population was massacred or deported, in forced marches, to the interior regions of Anatolia and Syria (an event recounted in a beautiful book written by the daughter of one of the victims: "Not even my name", by Thea Halo). It is estimated that at least 350,000 Greeks, about half the population, perished, while the survivors were deported.

In Asia Minor, however, there occurred what Greek historians know as the "Asia Minor Catastrophe", a series of events that led to the final abandonment of the region by almost the entire Greek population that had lived, prospered and inhabited Ionia since the 11th century BC. These events are, first and foremost, the defeat of Greece in the Greco-Turkish war (1919-1922), with the massacres that followed, and the burning of the great city of Smyrna (1922), in which some 30,000 Greeks and Christian Armenians perished in the flames or were thrown into the sea, while 250,000 left the destroyed city for good.

The consequence was the exchange of population between Greece and Turkey, sanctioned by the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, which in fact restored diplomatic relations between the two nations: from one and a half to three million Greeks were forced to leave Turkish territory to settle in Greece (according to a Greek census of 1928, 1,221,849 refugees out of a total of 6,204,684 inhabitants, 20 % of the country's population!), while between 300,000 and 500 Turks left Greece to settle in Turkey.

Jews in Turkey

Before 1492, the date of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, there existed in Turkey a Jewish community known as Romaniotes, because of their mixed Greek-Jewish culture. The Jews who arrived from the Iberian Peninsula contributed greatly to improving the economic and cultural situation of the entire community.

Unlike Christians, in 1908, the Jewish community in Turkey seemed to experience an improvement in its condition with the Young Turk revolution, but it must be said that, at least until 1923, the year of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic, only very few citizens of Jewish confession, despite having lived for centuries in the Ottoman Empire after being exiled from Spain, knew the Turkish language, having continued to proudly speak their mother tongue, Judeo-Spanish, which is still spoken by a few people today.

Between highs and lows, until the proclamation of the State of Israel, Turkey's Jewish community continued to remain in the country until mass emigration, which saw some 33,000 Turkish Jews move to the newly created Jewish state between 1948 and 1952 alone, due to the growing instability of their state but even more to the expectations of life in the new country. Today, of the approximately 100,000 Jews present in Turkey in the 19th century, some 26,000 remain (the second largest Jewish community in a Muslim country after Iran), mostly concentrated in Istanbul.

Christian minority in Turkey

The importance of Anatolia for Christianity is well known. There, in fact, St. Paul was born in Tarsus; there the first seven ecumenical councils of the Church were held; there, traditionally, Mary, mother of Jesus, lived the last years of her life (in Ephesus, where it has been found what for many is the house where she lived with her disciple John).

However, if before the fall of the Ottoman Empire Christians in Constantinople alone were about half of the population, and 16.6 % in Anatolia, today they are only 120,000 (0.2 %), a dramatic decrease more than in any other Islamic country, mainly due to the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian genocides, massive deportations and population exchanges between Greece and Turkey. Of these, 50,000 are Apostolic Armenians, some 21,000 Catholics (including Latins, Armenians, Syriacs and Chaldeans), only 2,000 Greek Orthodox, 12,000 Syrian Orthodox and 5,000 Protestants.

The life of Christians in the country is not always easy. In fact, although in the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) Turkey had formally committed itself to guarantee full protection of the life, liberty and legal equality of all its citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, and "full protection of churches, synagogues, cemeteries and other religious institutions of non-Muslim minorities" (Art. 42, par. 3, line 1), in fact has not recognized any status to its religious minorities, except for Armenian, Bulgarian, Greek Orthodox and Jewish ones (the latter, however, considered only "admitted confessions"). Consequently, non-Islamic religious communities cannot own or acquire property (only maintain churches, synagogues, monasteries and seminaries that already existed and were in use in 1923, but in fact many properties have been confiscated and nationalized by the Turkish State). Since the millet regime was abolished, religious leaders can no longer represent their respective communities (until 2011 there was not a single Christian deputy in Turkey).

Today there is talk of a growing "Christianophobia" in Turkey, given the increasing number of Muslims asking to be baptized in a Christian church (actually a rather small number, at least officially), in a country where Islamism, nationalism or both are increasingly in vogue.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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