Homecoming Part Two: The Baptisms

By Raffi Bedrosyan

The homecoming trip of the (no longer) hidden Armenians from Diyarbakir to Armenia finally began this week, after months and months of planning, preparation, resolving issues, emerging new issues, seemingly endless three-way long distance discussions from Diyarbakir to Yerevan through Toronto.

And now, the ‘new’ Armenians of Diyarbakir are strolling in the streets and museums of Yerevan, tiptoeing into the various churches scattered all over Armenia. Emotions are very near the surface… One moment they burst into dancing in the streets as soon as they hear a playful tune; the next moment they cry uncontrollably at a scene that may mean nothing to passersby but has reminded them of something or someone, all the way back in 1915.

Yerevan is full of Armenian kids from all over the world as part of the Ari Dun [Come Home] program at the invitation of the Ministry of Diaspora of the Republic of Armenia, which has also helped organize our itinerary. The government officials arranged to meet the Diyarbakir group on our first day along with hundreds of the Diaspora children. The Diyarbakir group was extremely anxious about how they will be greeted. The Armenian officials were equally curious about these Turkish/Kurdish-speaking individuals, ranging in age from 18 to 83 but mostly middle-aged people from all socioeconomic and educational levels, including teachers, students, doctors, housewives and retired people. Some of them are sophisticated urban dwellers, others are going abroad for the first time.

I am acting as the translator from Armenian into Turkish and back, but my task needs to be more than just to relay statements and messages. I have to be able to convey, from Turkish into Armenian, the incredible desire and courage of these people in becoming new Armenians, and also to be able to convey, from Armenian into Turkish, the honest sincerity of welcome of the government officials.  But I am happy to report that by the end of the meeting, the previously anxious Diyarbakir Armenians and the previously serious-looking government officials were dancing the Diyarbakir halay together to Armenian music, while the kids from the Diaspora, including Russia, US, France and Iran, watched these grown-up kids in amazement. A government official says his parents are from Mush, another one says from Sasun, then one of the Diyarbakir people screams “My father is from Sasun, too.” Then the stories remembered in common from Sasun begin. They don’t need my translation any more. They have already started comparing Sasun village names and hugging each other…

I was a bit apprehensive when the Diaspora Ministry people had told me they had planned two hours of Armenian language lessons each day as part of the itinerary, thinking that our group would be more interested in seeing places. To my surprise, they all burst into enthusiastic applause and were deeply grateful for the lessons.

When we visited the Madenataran’s manuscript treasures and Oshagan where Mesrob Mashdots, the creator of the Armenian alphabet, is buried, they understood better the mystery of the strange letters that they saw for the first time in their lives just two years ago.

As I reported in previous articles, almost all of the group members have some degree of ‘Armenianness’ in their family, some from one parent, some from both. They have mostly decided to come out as Armenians, but not as Christians —yet.  Two of them have already been baptized in Diyarbakir’s Surp Giragos Church, changing names, identity and religion. Gafur Turkay has become Ohannes Ohanian and his wife Nurcan has become Knar, proudly wearing not one but all three cross necklaces given to her as presents after her christening. One of the teachers in the group is determined to be baptized at Echmiadzin. The risks he is taking are enormous. He is a primary school teacher in a government school. He may lose his job, friends’ circle, or worse, but his mind is made up. In addition, if he is baptized in Echmiadzin instead of back home at Surp Giragos, he will gain bragging rights over Gafur/Ohannes as being a more complete Christian Armenian… I have arranged for the ceremony beforehand with Bishop Pakrad Galstanian of Echmiadzin, formerly the Canadian diocesan Primate.

We also have a lady who has spent many sleepless nights trying to decide whether she should get baptized too. Her dilemma is even more dangerous. She feels she has an obligation to her long-suffering late father, a hidden Armenian, who had encouraged her to become a Christian Armenian before he passed away. But her devoutly Moslem Kurdish husband has forbidden her from taking this step. The night before our trip to Echmiadzin, she tells me she will not be able to go ahead with the baptism.

In the morning we are off to Sardarabad, visiting the Victory Museum, understanding the significance and consequences of the 1918 events. As we approach Echmiadzin, the lady with the dilemma walks from the back of the bus to where I am sitting, and tells me her final decision: “My father suffered a lot, I know he is still suffering even though he is dead, I need to do this to end his suffering. If I will suffer as a result of this, I am prepared for it.”
So we end up having a double christening ceremony at Surp Asdvadzadzin Church in Echmiadzin for the ‘new’ Stepan who took his Armenian grandfather’s name, and for the new ‘Anzhel’ who took her Armenian grandmother’s name. I am certain this was the first time in Echmiadzin, or all of Armenia, where the Armenian christening ceremony was carried out in both Armenian and Turkish translation word for word. At the end, Pakrad Srpazan concluded with the statement: “To become a Christian, one needs to be brave, to become both an Armenian and a Christian, one needs to be doubly brave.” Everyone had tears in their eyes, including Pakrad Srpazan.

Isn’t it ironic that these people chose to become Armenian on the same day when Turkish Prime Minister and presidential candidate Erdogan stated on national TV: “They [the opposition] said I was of Georgian origin. Even uglier, they accused me of being an Armenian, sorry to say?”

And isn’t it doubly ironic that if Erdogan does become President, the presidential mansion that he will reside in was once owned by an Armenian family known as the Kasapyan family?

Our reporting of the journey through Armenia toward a new life for the (no longer) hidden Armenians will continue.

Raffi Bedrosyan is a civil engineer as well as a concert pianist, living in Toronto, Canada. For the past several years, proceeds from his concerts and two CDs have been donated to the construction of school, highway, water, and gas distribution projects in Armenia and Karabagh—projects in which he has also participated as a voluntary engineer. Bedrosyan was involved in organizing the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church reconstruction project, and in promoting the significance of this historic project worldwide as the first Armenian reclaim of church properties in Anatolia after 1915. In September 2012, he gave the first Armenian piano concert in the Surp Giragos Church since 1915.