By Raffi Bedrosyan
YEREVAN — Along with many high points experienced during the historic trip of 80 hidden Armenians from Turkey, there were also a few low points. The highs included warm welcomes by both Armenian government officials and common people on the street, emotional triumphs at Sardarabad, feelings of grief at the Genocide Museum, new-found friendships, accomplishments like spelling the alphabet during Armenian language classes, or simply being able to order food in Armenian at a restaurant. However, I want to point out a few of the lows our hidden Armenians encountered — all related to baptism.
Among the members of our group, two girls from Dersim and a young man from Diyarbakir wished to be baptized. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, their wish did not come true.
In recent days, Armenian media — both in the Diaspora and in Armenia — ran headline news and opinion pieces on this topic. Various individuals gave press conferences; people opined on TV; statements were released by the church, government, Diaspora organizations, and political parties; while heated debates on social media argued both for and against the decision to refuse the baptisms.
As the organizer of the group whose three members wished to be baptized, and as the designated godfather or “gnkahayr” for these baptisms, I would like to provide a first-hand account of what really happened, why it happened, and what we should do to avoid such scandals in the future.
One may recall that during the trip I organized last year for the 50 hidden Armenians from Diyarbakir to Armenia, we arranged the baptism of a man and a woman in Echmiadzin. The man was a teacher in a public school in Diyarbakir. As Christians are not allowed to work in the public sector in Turkey — not even as a garbage collector, let alone a teacher — he took a great risk by converting to Christianity. He was prepared for it; and I am happy to report that he is still employed as a teacher. This year, he brought his son to Armenia to extend the process of returning to Armenian roots to the next generation. The woman baptized last year, on the other hand, had an even more ominous challenge. Her husband, a devout Moslem Kurd, had forbidden her from taking such a step. She nevertheless decided to convert to Christianity to keep her promise to her hidden Armenian father, who had asked her to become a Christian Armenian at his deathbed. I am also pleased to report that she and her husband are still happily married, and are now bravely facing the challenge of how to raise their child together — whether as an Armenian, a Kurd, a Christian or a Moslem.
Therefore, this year when three members of our group approached me with their wish to be baptized, I thought — perhaps naively — that again I can go ahead and arrange the baptisms for the day we visit Echmiadzin. The two Dersimtsi girls would take the names Anahit and Nairi, and the Dikranagerdtsi man from Diyarbakir would become Madteos Paramaz. One of the Dersim girls had a brother who was already baptized last year. The Dikranagerdsi man was a distant relative of the family involved in the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Church in Diyarbakir.
Unfortunately, the baptisms could neither happen in Echmiadzin, nor in the Khor Virab Church the next day, nor in Surp Hovhannes Church in Yerevan the following day. The explanations given to us were as varied as the clerics involved. Some said we had to apply in writing months in advance; then, the applications would be reviewed by a religious council before permission could be considered. Others said we needed to bring a letter from the Istanbul Acting Patriarch Archbishop Aram Atesyan granting permission for the baptisms. One cleric suggested the candidates must visit Armenia at least three times before being eligible. An even more preposterous suggestion came from a cleric who wondered why we don’t go to churches in Turkey since those wishing to be baptized are all from Turkey, instead of causing headaches for him and his superiors. I didn’t bother telling him that although there are churches in Istanbul, no churches are left in historic Armenia except the one we reconstructed in Diyarbakir. Overall, these clerics seemed to be unprepared as to how to deal with the baptism requests and had to make endless calls to their superiors for a decision, which either did not come or was ultimately negative. In any case, they would still lead us on, that by tomorrow, there may be a positive decision. So, each day — with our hopes high, after buying the required towels, crosses, and headscarves for the girls — we would face renewed disappointment. Even the intervention of the Minister of Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan did not achieve the desired outcome.
An even more upsetting development was the zeal of critics to use this incident to start misguided attacks. Rather than criticize the decision itself or the persons who made the decision, we have individuals appearing at press conferences and on TV, or writing articles in newspapers, attacking the Armenian Church, the Ministry of Diaspora, and the government in general. One organization called Republic of Western Armenia even went as far as issuing fictitious citizenship and identification cards with the baptized names printed on them, displaying the cards with a fictitious flag, name, and photo at press conferences and on TV. It seems these people forget or don’t care that the two Dersim girls and the Diyarbakir man will return to Turkey, will continue living among Moslem Turks and Kurds, with their names paraded on a fictitious republic’s fake citizenship cards. Do they have the right to jeopardize the lives of these already endangered persons? Or for that matter, do any of these opinion makers, who pass along all sorts of judgment in the media, care about the emotions of these three young people who had made such a personal decision as changing their faith, their religion?
The hidden Armenians have no control over their ethnic roots, their genetic identity—they were given no choice. They were born as Armenians, even though the fact that they are Armenians was not revealed to them until later in life. Some of them have now made a conscious decision to return to their ethnic roots. But changing religion by converting to Christianity is an entirely different matter. No one is born with a religion—Christian or Moslem. Religion is not a genetic identity but a faith acquired by personal choice and through family. If someone has made the decision to become Christian through baptism, there should be no individual, no institution, or no force to prevent that from happening—especially in the case of hidden Armenians, who are taking a risk by revealing their Armenian identity, and by converting to Christianity. If the reason for these increasingly difficult barriers that prevent baptisms is misgivings of abuse, there should be other ways of dealing with them quickly and without delay. Sure, there could be some Moslem Turks or Kurds just pretending to be hidden Armenians. There could be others who have no intention of becoming Christian Armenian and who are getting baptized to gain some sort of advantage, such as employment or a way out of Turkey and into Europe or the Americas. However, these exceptions should not lead to draconian rules and regulations for all others who genuinely want to become Christian. Moreover, why do we have godfathers? The role of the godfather is to assure the Church that the person being baptized is eligible and worthy of baptism, and there should be no excuse or delay by the cleric for further investigation.
The objective of Project Rebirth is to help the hidden Armenians think, feel, and act as Armenians. Our work will continue regardless of the barriers placed by certain people. Whether these hidden Armenians become Christian or not, they have decided to return to their Armenian roots, and we will continue encouraging them. It would be ideal if the Church also fulfils its duty in encouraging them to become Christian Armenians, but if not, it is still alright. After all, Armenians were Armenians for centuries before they adopted Christianity.
(Raffi Bedrosyan is a civil engineer and concert pianist, living in Toronto, Canada. He has donated concert and CD proceedings to infrastructure projects in Armenia and Karabagh, in which he has also participated as an engineer. He helped organize the reconstruction of the Surp Giragos Diyarbakir/Dikranagerd Church and the first Armenian reclaim of church properties in Anatolia after 1915. He gave the first piano concert in the Surp Giragos Church since 1915.)