ISTANBUL—Armed with a large, shiny key, Sahak Tavukcu, the caretaker of Surp Hresdagabet Church, is one of the last Armenians remaining in Istanbul’s Balat neighborhood. The area was once home to a cluster of minorities such as Armenians, Greeks, and Jews. Today, however, the district’s residents are predominantly conservative Muslims, and Balat itself has attracted anti-Armenian sentiment, even though most Armenians left the neighborhood years ago.
According to the Turkish Armenian patriarchate, around 60,000 ethnic Armenians remain in Turkey, mostly in and around Istanbul, a far cry from the over a million Armenians who called it home before the tragic events of 1915-1917, when the Ottoman Empire led hundreds of thousands of Armenians on forced marches from the capital to the Syrian desert, saying they needed to be resettled for military reasons. Between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians died due to massacres, murders, or ill treatment.
Over the weekend, for the first time ever, U.S. President Joe Biden formally declared Turkey’s killing and displacement of what’s estimated at more than a million Armenians a genocide. It’s a designation of little consequence in international law, but which carries huge weight in the fraught relations between Turkey and its Armenian minority.
For decades, the United States danced around any such designation, fearing that it would harm relations with a longtime NATO ally. But with U.S.-Turkey relations seemingly already bottomed out, after years of disputes over Syria, the Kurds, Russian missiles, and more, Washington has finally called the Armenian slaughter by the name that it helped coin.
But for many ethnic Armenians in Turkey, Biden’s comments, made more than a century after the fact, were too little, too late. “It’s been so long,” said Tavukcu, 56, mopping the rarely visited church’s pristine floors. “Maybe it will be a good thing—who knows? It’s all politics.”
Tavukcu holds the key to the Surp Hresdagabet Church in Istanbul on April 27.
Relics of saints named Surp Ardemios and Surp Pepron were discovered during a restoration carried out in the Holy Spring of the Church in 2006.
The church, which has burned down and been rebuilt more than once, is in many ways the embodiment of the city’s multicultural history—and the Armenian community’s struggle to survive. Built originally as a Greek Orthodox church before being given to Armenians in the 15th century, its stone-walled grounds sit next to an abandoned Armenian school, now derelict and used as a base by migrant waste collectors. Nearby is a modern mosque and an old synagogue.
Tavukcu said only about 15 people attend the weekly Thursday prayers now, but years ago the church attracted huge crowds during holy festivals. Despite a history in the country that goes back millennia—St. Paul wrote one of his many epistles to the Christian community of Galatia, in central Anatolia—Turkey’s Christians face increasing nationalism intertwined with Islamic conservatism.
In recent years, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, with its brand of populist nationalism, has mandated conversion of a number of churches and historical sites into mosques. The country has moved away from secular traditions and has become increasingly intolerant of those who do not fit with leadership’s vision of a more Islamic and less diverse Turkey.
“They called this a church of miracles until 12 years ago,” Tavukcu said. Worshipers would come, he said, from the capital, from “everywhere,” to mark the Exaltation of the Holy Cross festival each September, an important religious event for Armenians. “We would celebrate until dawn, sheep and other offerings would be brought and many people were healed in this church. … It was our version of Eid,” he said.
Things changed, however, after a TV report focusing on the religious healings and sacrifices caused outrage in Turkey. “After that there was pressure on us, so we had to stop our traditions,” Tavukcu said. Now they mark the festival simply by reading prayers until evening.
Other neighborhoods have larger Armenian communities. Tavukcu has also been offered U.S. residency. But he stays, he said, to keep alive the flicker of Armenian presence here. For those who are both Armenian and Turkish, their inner world is complicated and full of contradictions. Inside the church’s living quarters, there’s a picture of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Next to it hangs an old Armenian prayer.
Last year, the church was vandalized with graffiti as Armenia and Azerbaijan, a country of ethnic Turks backed by sophisticated Turkish weapons, fought a brutal conflict over the contested enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Cars paraded through Balat waving Azerbaijani and Turkish flags; some of the former are still visible on the streets.
The precarious position Turkey’s Armenians cling to today explains why so few were willing to talk about Biden’s designation. Turkey’s Armenian patriarch Sahak Mashalian told state media that he agreed the move was political, and in a rare show of unity, even opposition parties rallied against the declaration. Turkey’s government condemned the move, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying the genocide claims are “baseless, unjust, and untrue.” An exhibition dedicated to Turkish diplomats killed by Armenian militants was unveiled on the same day in Los Angeles, which has a big Armenian diaspora population, and the government has vowed that there will be a response at an “appropriate” but undefined time in the future.
For Turkish Armenians, the issue is still raw. Garo Paylan, a Turkish member of parliament of Armenian descent, received threats on social media after he submitted a legal proposal for genocide recognition this week. His party, the pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party, is the only one to have spoken out in favor. The threats are not without precedent—in 2007, the outspoken journalist Hrant Dink, who founded the Istanbul-based Armenian newspaper Agos, was shot to death outside his office.
Armenian Turkish journalist Rober Koptas, who formerly worked at Agos, also faced a strong backlash on social media after he encouraged Turkey to recognize the genocide. Ten or 15 years ago, he said, the topic could still be broached. He said that although he used to believe that foreign interference in the issue was harmful to the struggle for dialogue within Turkey, he now believes that the ongoing crackdown on freedom of speech means that discussing it is no longer an option.
“Of course the U.S. is doing this on the basis of their own interests, and Turkey-U.S. relations are not good at the moment. Perhaps it is a tool for diplomacy to show Turkey how they can punish them if agreements are broken, but the U.S. is an important country, and what they say matters,” he said. “Turkish denial has caused this recognition. Go and acknowledge your genocide, and then no one can use this as a diplomatic tool against you. The denial mechanism is very strong, and as a Turkish Armenian, this is very sad for me.”
Although some feared for the Armenian community in the wake of the U.S. decision, the response has so far been limited to small protests in the United States and outside Istanbul’s U.S. Consulate. But for Tavukcu, the tiny size of the Armenian population means they will always have to be careful.
“We were afraid of Biden’s genocide announcement,” because Armenians are such a small community, he said. Other countries and communities have bigger populations, he said, “but we are a small number.”