The Greatest Martyrdom — Turkey’s Dark History

The most consistent persecution haunts the Turkish state. One million seven-hundred thousand Armenians and Syriacs were exterminated (Armenian genocide).

By Christian Braw, Swedish priest, theologian and author 

The 20th century witnessed the greatest Christian martyrdom ever. The number of Christian martyrs under communist and Nazi regimes cannot be counted with certainty but number in the several millions. The most consistent persecution in 20th century, however, haunts the Turkish state, both in its predecessor form of the Ottoman Empire as in its later secular form. But there is an important difference here. Where the German state has thoroughly come to terms with its past, and in Russia great poets and journalists have been able to expose at least some of the crimes, in Turkey it is still punishable to even mention the Christian martyrs. When Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk wrote about empty Armenian houses in his 2002-novel Snow, he took a conscious risk. The empty Armenian houses had a deeper message. They testified to the genocide in which about one and a half million Armenians and two-hundred fifty-thousand Syriacs perished – the Armenian genocide.

The genocide was not executed covertly like the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Everything was done openly and in front of the eyes of European diplomats. Another important group of eyewitnesses were the missionaries.

The worst persecution broke out in 1915, but in the 1890s it had been preceded by massacres under Sultan Hamid. The Hamid massacres, which mainly affected adult men and teenage boys, had left behind tens of thousands of fatherless children and destitute women. Their situation resonated in Europe and the United States and aroused outrage and strong pity. This outrage and pity is described in a new book, Folkmord, flyktingar och fortlevnad (Artos). Publisher Svante Lundgren et al. writes in his preface how the book came to be. It began with his involvement in an Armenian film project about the rescue efforts of Armenian Christians. Among the Nordic missionaries and aid workers, there were three women who are particularly important to mention in case: Alma Johansson (Sweden), Bodil Biørn (Norway), and Maria Jacobsen (Denmark). They entered into a work which had been initiated by, among others, Johannes Lepsius (1858-1926), a German priest, who has recently been portrayed in a major biography by Ashot Hayruni: Einsatz für das bedrohte Volk der Armenier (Ferdinand Schöningh Verlag). Johannes Lepsius’ home in Berlin is now a museum and a research institute for victims of genocide.

Lepsius was present in the Ottoman Empire already during the Hamidian massacres. He traveled around in Turkey and documented the massacres. He found 88.243 killed, 2.493 towns and villages looted, 646 villages forcibly converted to Islam, 326 churches and monasteries converted into mosques, 568 churches and monasteries had been desecrated, and 546.000 people were in urgent need. By then, however, the massacres were not over. When peace finally came, it is estimated that some three-hundred thousand Christian Armenians had lost their lives.

It was these events that aroused Christian outrage and pity in Europe and the United States. In the Nordic region, the organization Kvinnliga Missionsarbetare (KMA) became particularly important and active. KMA had grown out of the YWCA, an all-Christian movement that focused on bringing together Christian female youth. KMA spread throughout the Nordic region and it was KMA who sent Alma Johansson, Bodil Biørn and Maria Jacobsen to the Ottoman Empire.

The three Nordic women worked mainly with orphaned Armenian children. In their aid work, they would experience atrocities far exceeding what Sultan Hamid had brought about. Hamid had been a zealous Muslim, but Turkey’s new rulers, the Young Turks, were secular nationalists. Their vision was a Turkey with one single nationality and one single language. This is the background to their big project – ethnic cleansing. Their goal was to first marginalize and then eliminate the Armenian people. This would be executed by leading the Armenians in death marches to camps in the Syrian desert. Most of them died there. Only 15 percent survived. A German medical officer, Arnim Wegener, documented the entire tragedy in 2.000 photographs, which are still preserved.

It was this horror what the three Nordic women witnessed. Alma Johansson states that the governor of the district she worked in had openly declared that all Armenians would be massacred. Through a window she saw Christian women being chased out into the streets by soldiers beating and shooting at them. She writes: “I will never forget that sight. And there was nothing I could do for them.” Many women got into marriage to avoid falling into the hands of the Turks and being raped. Many men were tied up and taken to the city gate where they were shot. Others were buried alive, others were cremated. The children in the orphanage were also taken away. Alma Johansson writes: “My poor children! I have loved them as if they were my own.”

Where did the young Turks get the idea from to deport and imprison an entire people in camps? Actually from – England! In the late 19th century, the vast mineral resources of South Africa attracted the interest of the British Empire. But South Africa already had two established small states populated by peasants of Dutch-ancestry, the Boers. When their opposition to the British Empire could not be broken, the English had the entire people imprisoned, including the elderly and infants, in camps. The mortality rate in those camps was appallingly high. Strong aversion of the unhuman treatment and outraged Christian public opinion back home in England made the British close down the camps. By then, twenty-eight thousand Boers had died of disease and malnutrition. It was this invention – the concentration camp – that the young Turks had embraced. And the Young Turks felt no restraint or hesitation, and were not held back by any public opinion or outrage.

What then was the inner motivation for the three Nordic women? It was a strong personal Christian faith. And this Christian faith had a very clear profile: devotion, perseverance and – motherhood.

This article was originally published in Swedish by Kyrka och Folk on 13 August 2020. The original can be found here.