On October 29, 2019, the United States House of Representatives, by a vote of 405-to-11, officially recognized the 1915 genocide perpetuated by the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) against its Armenian population. In the years that followed, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished.
The Genocide in Context
As the Ottoman Empire began to fracture during the First World War, attitudes within the government and military began to turn against the Empire’s Armenians, most of whom were Christian. After a failed 1914 military action to take back territories lost to the Russian Empire in the eastern region of modern-day Turkey, Armenians in the territory were accused of supporting the Russians. Subsequent military setbacks combined with a general distrust of the Armenian Christians as pro-Russian traitors prompted a series of targeted attacks on military-age Armenian men. This first wave of anti-Armenian animus culminated in the April 1915 arrest and assassination of approximately 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders.
The following month, the Ottomans began to mass deport the Empire’s Armenians under the pretext they were a security threat. In reality, this deportation effort resulted in horrendous death marches where the Armenians were deprived of food, water, and shelter. Tens of thousands died during this period. Moreover, Armenian women and girls were subject to repeated sexual abuse, gang rapes, sex slavery, and murder.
Concentration camps were also established to hold the surviving Armenians, but they hardly provided a reprieve from genocide. Many in the camps died of disease and starvation, and thousands were rounded up and burned alive. Other terrors, including mass drownings and physician-assisted killings, contributed to the atrocities. Those who managed to survive the genocide scattered into nearby countries such as Russia or sought asylum further abroad. For all intents and purposes, the Empire’s Armenian population was eradicated.
Aftermath and Recognition
Recognizing the victimization of the Armenians has been a hotly contested political issue for more than a century. The Ottoman Empire’s successor state, the Republic of Turkey, has refused to recognize what happened to the Armenians as “genocide.” Over the decades, Turkish officials have concocted a number of excuses and justifications for what happened while always denying the official death tallies. Turkey, at the same time, maintains that the Armenians were not specifically targeted because of their ethnicity and religious affiliation, and that their pro-Russian sympathies represented a national threat. Needless to say, these denials have not impressed scholars, heads of state, and many religious leaders.
In 2016, for example, Pope Francis referred to the killing of the Armenians as the first genocide of the 20th Century. Such sentiments have long been shared by the leaders of the Armenian Orthodox Church and other Eastern Orthodox hierarchs. This is no doubt due to the Ottomans systematically targeting other Christian populations around the time of the Armenian genocide.
In 1913, for instance, the Ottomans ethnically cleansed the primarily Bulgarian Orthodox peoples of Eastern Thrace and the Rhodope Mountains, resulting in approximately 200,000 deaths and dislocations. Similarly, between 450-750,000 Greek Orthodox Christians living in the Empire were murdered between 1913 and 1922. Maronite Catholics, mainly living in modern-day Lebanon, were subjected to mass starvation, yielding some 200,000 lives. Assyrian Christians, too, did not escape Ottoman brutality; they endured losses estimated between 150-300,000.
More Than a Memory
The Armenian Genocide and other barbarous acts undertaken against Western Asian/Middle Eastern Christians is more than a historical memory. As the world has witnessed over the past decade, too often in silence, Christians are still subject to systematic violence at the hands of hostile Muslim governments and militants. Turkey, which purports to be a secular state, is still dominated by Islamic ideology.
Whether or not the U.S. House’s recognition leads to more widespread acknowledgment of anti-Christian violence remains to be seen. Certainly, the ongoing breakdown of American/Turkish relations contributed to the Armenian resolution. Even so, it is an important step toward setting the record straight on the evils perpetuated against Christians during the dolorous 20th Century.