An open letter to Pope Francis
Dear Holy Father,
You probably are getting some heated reactions these days from my compatriots, the Turks. The reason is obvious: You used the word “genocide” when referring to the “Great Catastrophe” that the Ottoman Armenians went through a century ago. Many Turks, including members of the Turkish government, were furious, reacting with cries of “how dare you!” They consider the “G-word” an insult, and thus lash out everyone who dares to use it.
I should perhaps begin by saying that as a Turk myself, I do not approve of these knee-jerk reactions. You have the right to interpret history in the way you see it, and no one can blame you for that. The world’s temporal governments, whose ambitions for power almost always curtail their devotions to Truth, especially should have little to say about your views on the Truth.
Yet as a Truth-seeker myself, allow me to share a few thoughts with you. Let me begin by introducing myself. I am a “Turkish” writer-journalist, but like many people from this part of the world, my identity gets bit more complicated if you go a few generations back. My father, who also identifies as a Turk, was born in Yozgat, a small, Central Anatolian town. But things change when you go back to his grandfather, because this grand-grandfather was not a Turk in the ethnic and linguistic sense. He was a “Circassian,” a term defining the various Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucasus.
You might wonder what people from the Northern Caucasus were doing in Central Anatolia in the late 19th century (when my forefathers came to the region where I was born). Well, they came because of an unpleasant reason: The Russian Empire, always eager for conquest as it still is today, invaded the Caucasus in the late 19th century, and carried out an ethnic cleansing on its Muslim peoples.
A simple search on Wikipedia will give you the details. Allow me to quote this passage:
“The Conquest of the Caucasus by the Russian Empire in the 19th century during the Russian-Circassian War led to the destruction and killing of many Adyghe … towards the end of the conflict, the Russian General Yevdokimov was tasked with driving the remaining Circassian inhabitants out of the region, primarily into the Ottoman Empire. This policy was enforced by mobile columns of Russian riflemen and Cossack cavalry. In a series of sweeping military campaigns lasting from 1860 to 1864, the northwest Caucasus and the Black Sea coast were virtually emptied of Muslim villagers ... One after another, entire Circassian tribal groups were dispersed, resettled, or killed en masse.”
As you can see, what happened to my Muslim ancestors in the 1860s is very similar to what happened to the Christian Armenians in the final decade of the Ottoman Empire. Similar campaigns of ethnic cleansing were also exercised in the Balkans, again targeting Muslims, this time not directly by the Russian Empire but by its allies, the newly formed and militantly nationalist Balkan states of the time, such as Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece.
All of these horrors happened as this part of the world went through a dark era marked by a painfully crumbling empire and vicious struggles over dominance of its pieces. We Muslims suffered terribly, and also made others, such as Armenians, suffer terribly.
What makes so many Turks so reactionary to statements on “Armenian Genocide” is really this mutually painful history. Their perception is that Armenians are singled out as its only victims. To overcome this conundrum, we in Turkey must work to raise awareness about the tragedy of Ottoman Armenians. In return, the world can help us by remembering the tragedy of Ottoman Muslims as well. I hope you will understand.
With my deepest regards,
A fellow believer in God--and in the sanctity of human life.