Invisible For Generations, 'Hidden Armenians' Emerge In Turkey : Parallels Many Armenian Christians were slaughtered by the Ottomans a century ago, but some survivors were taken in by Muslim families. A growing number are now reclaiming their Armenian heritage.

Invisible For Generations, 'Hidden Armenians' Emerge In Turkey

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A century ago this week Ottoman forces ran a campaign of massacres that killed perhaps a million Armenian Christians. Some Armenians survived and were taken in by Muslim families. Their descendants hid their histories. Turkey instilled a climate of fear, even prosecuting people who talked about the Armenian genocide. Turkey rejects that term genocide, but has grown more tolerant of its use. NPR's Peter Kenyon went to southeastern Turkey and met so-called hidden Armenians who are now revealing their heritage.

(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE GRINDER)

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: That's the sound of an old mechanical coffee grinder, and the aroma it's giving off is having a magnetic pull on shoppers in the ancient walled city of Diyarbakir. This is largely a Kurdish Muslim city, but just a few twisting cobblestoned alleys away, there's a sound long unheard.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)

KENYON: The bells lead to a congregation of people coming to terms with dual identities - their public face as Muslims and an Armenian Christian identity that was long hidden. The courtyard of the church of St. Giragos, reopened just a few years ago, has become a kind of second home for people of both faiths who are no longer afraid to know more about a dark period in their history. By 1915, the Ottoman Empire had already lost its holdings in Europe and was determined to hang on to Anatolia under threat by Russia. When some Ottoman Armenians signed up to fight on the Russian side, historians say officials in Constantinople decided to drastically reduce the Armenian population. Many historians put the death toll at up to 1.5 million; Turks say it was a third of that.

ARAM HACIKYAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: Aram Hacikyan is the bell ringer at St. Giragos. His grandfather fled the massacres as a child and was raised by a Kurdish Muslim family. Even his name is new to his acquaintances; previously he used the Turkish name on his ID card so as not to draw attention to his origins. Raised as a Muslim, Hacikyan says somehow everyone seemed to know he was different.

HACIKYAN: (Through interpreter) When we were kids in the village, other kids called us gavur, infidel, and we were crying. We didn't know what it meant. Our father explained it's because we're Armenians.

KENYON: Hacikyan says his heart began to beat when he stepped inside the restored St. Giragos church, but some of his relatives aren't ready to embrace Christianity.

HACIKYAN: (Through interpreter) Now that the church is open again, only three of my family members have converted. The rest do come to the church, but they're keeping their identity as Muslim.

KENYON: Aram greets 54-year-old Armen Demerjian, who's just returned from Istanbul. He's carrying copies of Agos, the weekly newspaper with a section written in Armenian. Demerjian was raised by the conservative Muslim family that took in his relatives in 1915. His father married into the family, and Demerjian says he won't upset them by converting to Christianity now, but he is tracking down his Armenian relatives. So far he's found records of five who perished in 1915 and five families of newly discovered kin from New York to Marseille.

ARMEN DEMERJIAN: (Through interpreter) The elders in my village knew my relatives who died in the genocide, and they helped me find my other descendants. They've promised to visit the church here. The relative in Marseille promised to come this year. I'm going to take him to the village.

KENYON: But for every Armenian Turk here at the church, there are many more keeping silent, either by preference or out of fear. Remzi Demir, an elderly Armenian Christian in a light brown suit, smiles as he tells a story that sounds like it's been embellished with the retelling, but is revealing nonetheless.

REMZI DEMIR: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: It's about a Muslim couple married 26 years who learn that the Armenian church in Diyarbakir has reopened. The wife confesses to her husband that she's actually of Armenian descent. The husband's eyebrows shoot up and he says, really, me too.

Untangling the threads of a century of oppressed history is very much a work in progress. Ottoman officials who planned the Armenian killings are still lionized in schools as heroes of Turkey's war of independence. But here in heavily Kurdish Diyarbakir, there's an unexpected bright spot. Although Kurds participated in the attacks on Armenians a century ago, these days they encourage Armenians to connect with their culture. In part, it's because Kurds are also a minority in Turkey, pushing for their rights. And the Solidarity is making Armenians here feel a little more at home. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Diyarbakir, Turkey.

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