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Turkey Makes Overtures to Minorities, but Old Enmities Linger

By Celestine Bohlen
Kars, Turkey — The history of this city, about 30 miles from the border with Armenia, may best be told through its former Armenian cathedral, the Church of the Holy Apostles, poised at the base of an imposing fortress. Built in the 10th century by an Armenian king, it was turned into a mosque three times and once into a Russian Orthodox church. It was briefly resurrected as an Armenian church in 1919 before the modern secular Turkish state expropriated it in 1921, eventually turning it into a petroleum depot, then into a museum, then again into a mosque.

The unfinished Statue of Humanity, a monument to Armenian-Turkish reconciliation, in Kars, Turkey, in 2009. It was demolished in 2011.
MUSTAFA OZER / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE — GETTY IMAGES

Now, it is mostly closed: Many Muslims go instead to a holier shrine next door. According to Armenian news reports, it might be converted into either a cultural center or even a church, but it is unclear who would come, given that virtually no Armenian Christians are left in Kars.

The city has experienced even more violent turnover than its cathedral. The Ottomans and the Russians were here — but also the Byzantines, the Seljuk Turks, the Georgians, the Persians and the Mongols. Populations were imported, expelled and massacred.

The Armenian genocide of 1915 was the region’s most chilling atrocity, but there were others as Muslims fled Russian-occupied territories in the late 19th century, and Christians later escaped the returning Turks.


These old enmities are never far below the surface. In the nearby city of Igdir, Turkey built a monument in 1999 to commemorate Turkish victims of 20th-century massacres. A gargantuan monument to Armenian-Turkish reconciliation was torn down in Kars in 2011.

Still, there are suggestions that history is finally getting its due. Signs at the ancient ruins of Ani, right on the border, acknowledge that the vast site was the capital of an Armenian kingdom in the 10th and 11th centuries with a population of 100,000.

Although Turkey continues to deny the Armenian genocide and threatens to punish countries — most recently Germany — that recognize it, attitudes toward its multiethnic population and its multilayered history loosened up in the early years of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 13-year rule, which he began as prime minister.

The Armenian question, once taboo, became a topic of academic seminars and open discussion.

“After a period of huge ignorance, people now know more, and once they know, you can’t turn back,” said Hugh Pope, an expert on Turkey at the International Crisis Group in Brussels.

Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist party, Justice and Development, operating in a majority-Muslim country, took a more lenient approach to minority rights in the early 2000s, when Turkey was actively pursuing membership in the European Union. “They are comfortable making concessions because they are the overwhelmingly dominant culture,” said Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

An Armenian church was reopened in 2010 on the shores of Lake Van, but services are held only once a year. The restoration of a synagogue in Erdine was completed last year, though the local Jewish community left long ago. Several minority languages — including Kurdish — have been taught in schools since 2013.

And yet, even these meager initiatives have been met with protests from parts of Turkish society. In 2010, a Turkish nationalist leader ostentatiously went to Ani to hold prayers at a ruined mosque to protest the reopening of the Armenian church on Lake Van.

And since 2013, as Mr. Erdogan tightened his authoritarian rule, initiating a campaign against Kurdish militants and a frontal attack against Turkey’s independent news media, his overtures to other minorities have diminished, according to Hamit Bozarslan, a Turkey specialist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. He cited the cancellation last year of a colloquium on the Armenian genocide at a Turkish university.

In an apparent attempt to break out of Turkey’s recent diplomatic isolation, Mr. Erdogan took a sudden initiative last month to improve relations with Israel and Russia.

But an opening of the Turkish-Armenian border, closed since 1993 over the conflict in nearby Nagorno-Karabakh, is not considered likely anytime soon.

“Erdogan has to be careful with what he does,” Mr. Barkey said. “There is still a lot of hostility between these groups.”



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