Turkish-Armenian Relations 'There Is Hope Once Again'

Turkey wants reconciliation with its neighbor Armenia, 94 years after the Armenian genocide. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Aram Atesyan says he is confident, but warns against overly high expectations that relations could normalize quickly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your Eminence, Turkey and Armenia have agreed on a roadmap for normalizing relations -- 94 years after the Armenian genocide. By the end of the year there could be full mutual diplomatic recognition, an exchange of ambassadors, and the opening of shared borders. Is this the beginning of the end of the animosity between the two countries?

An Armenian boy lays flowers at the genocide memorial in Yerevan, Armenia.

An Armenian boy lays flowers at the genocide memorial in Yerevan, Armenia.

Aram Atesyan: I am very confident. When the Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, flew to Yerevan last year to see the football game between the two countries, he was already making a remarkable step. We Armenians have been living on Anatolian soil for the past 2,000 years, and for the last thousand we have shared this land with the Turks. Our people were like brothers -- until the tragic events of 1915. Now there is hope once again, but we should not gamble it away. Therefore the next step is diplomatic rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, followed by the opening of common borders. A closer examination of our history will not be attempted for the time being.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The border with Armenia is the last closed border that Turkey has.

Atesyan: Every country should maintain good relations with its neighbors. Turkey had problems with Iran, Syria and Russia for a long time. Now it has good, sometimes even friendly, relations with other countries. During his visit to Ankara and Istanbul, US President Barack Obama encouraged Turkey to keep going along this route.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Until recently, Obama was popular in Turkey, but now less so, even though he consciously avoided using the "G-word" -- genocide -- in his speech on April 24, Armenian remembrance day.

Atesyan: The Turkish government is unhappy that the US president used the term "Meds Yeghern," the "great catastrophe." That is the common Armenian name for the events of 1915 and basically means the same thing. But there is also some disappointment among Armenians. Many wished that he would specifically use the G-word. But of course he did not. The US needs Turkey, it is one of its most important strategic partners.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It is striking that Armenians in the diaspora, in Europe and the United States, are insisting on unconditional recognition of the genocide. Do they not take seriously the concerns of Turkish-Armenians, who worry that recognition of the genocide will not help them but will only further fuel nationalist sentiments in Turkey?

Atesyan: You must remember that many of the fathers and grandfathers of those Armenians who are today living all around the world were in fact born on Turkish soil. Thousands of Armenians come to Anatolia every year to seek their roots. They feel strongly that this is their home. I do not want to judge them. I do not want to judge anyone. I am a member of the clergy, it's not my responsibility to conduct historical research or raise questions of guilt. The only thing I want to say to my Turkish and Armenian counterparts is: We know that something very terrible happened to my people in 1915. We also know that Turks and Muslims suffered. And we know that today there is a chance for our people to engage with each other.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How is the intellectual climate within Turkey? Are people today more open to history, more curious, more courageous?

Atesyan: Yes, there is certainly a change of mentality in Turkey. Ten years ago, no one would have had the courage to ask questions about the events of 1915. This fear has receded; today one can write about the issue or discuss it on television. In comparison to the 1990s, human rights in this country have made a big leap forward. This also affects our ability to practice our religion. We are now in a position to freely renovate our churches. Until recently, we had to ask permission from the government for each new nail.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Since the 1920s, Armenians have been one of three officially recognized minorities in Turkey, along with Greeks and Jews. Are you satisfied with this status, or do you find it limiting?

Atesyan: The Treaty of Lausanne, which was signed after the end of the Turkish War of Independence in 1923, acknowledges important rights for Armenians. We can operate our own churches, schools and newspapers. I am very happy about that. But there are also disadvantages. It is an unwritten law in this country that a Christian can never be a government minister or a military officer. But I believe that this could change in the future.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Did you also mention this to Barack Obama when you met him during his trip to Turkey at the beginning of April?

Atesyan: I told President Barack Obama first of all about the history of our people in this country. I told him about Armenian emperors in Anatolia, but also the role of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. When Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, he brought an Armenian priest from Bursa with him. In 1461 he gave the priest a patriarchate in the new capital, because at the time only the Greeks had one. Under every Ottoman sultan, there were Armenians serving as ministers, advisers and builders.

I also spoke with President Obama about the events of 1915 and told him that both peoples suffered. I also told him that we, the Armenians in Turkey, are like the children of a divorce. In Turkish, we call our homeland "Anavatan" -- that means "motherland" -- and in Armenian we call it "Hayrenik," which means "fatherland." We have lived with our mother for the past 80 years. Now we want our parents to finally reconcile.

Interview conducted by Daniel Steinvorth


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