The Armenian Genocide and The Middle East Today
Friday the week after next, April 24, marks the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. While some nations of the world recognize the Genocide, there are many deniers. Yes, the nation of Turkey denies there was a Genocide; they were merely putting down nationalist uprisings from a population that was largely disarmed and unarmed. Of course, this happened during WWI while the rest of the world was distracted. What Turkey does not answer is, how did 1.5 million Armenians die as well as hundreds of thousands of other Christians, through mass starvation, disease, a multitude of forms of murder, such as beheadings, crucifixion, drowning and other brutalities? How was a nation of orphans created? Why were thousands of women and children Islamized, taken into Turkish homes, orphanages, and harems? Why were churches burned and others turned into mosques, and a people’s wealth confiscated, and dispersion throughout the world of all survivors? Why do very few Armenians remain in a homeland that was theirs for thousands of years?
The Armenian Genocide generally proceeded in the following phases[i]:
“The first phase of the Armenian Genocide was the conscription of about 60,000 Armenian men into the Ottoman army, their disarmament and murder by their Turkish fellow soldiers.”
“The second phase of the extermination of the Armenian population started on April 24, 1915 with the arrest of several hundred Armenian intellectuals and representatives of national elite (mainly in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople) and their subsequent elimination. Hereinafter, Armenians worldwide started to commemorate the Armenian genocide on April 24 (1915).” This is considered the beginning of the Genocide by most Armenians, hence the hundred year commemoration.
“The third phase of the genocide is characterized with the exile of the massacres of women, children, elderly people to the desert of Syria. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered by Turkish soldiers, police officers, Kurdish bandits during the deportation. The others died of epidemic diseases. Thousands of women and children were subjected to violence. Tens of thousands were forcibly Islamized.” Yes, forced conversion is part of genocide.
“The fifth phase is the universal and absolute denial of the Turkish government of the mass deportations and genocide carried out against Armenians in their homeland.”
I am not a Genocide scholar, but like most Armenians I am a descendant of a Genocide survivor, so I can tell a story that may capture some of the scope and breadth of the tragedy and, importantly, the tragedy that is repeating itself today.
This story surrounds a man I never met, and one who died in that Genocide at the age of 34 years old. That man is my grandfather, Rev. Hovhannes Eskijian. His compassionate efforts to save Armenians was the subject of a book published in 2001, At the Crossroads of Der Zor, by Hilmar Kaiser, which is currently being translated into Armenian for the hundred year anniversary of the Genocide. Rev. Eskijian himself was an orphan, his father having been beheaded in front of his mother in 1895 during Turkish massacres of the Armenians during the period of 1895-1896, including the city of Urfa. He survived by hiding in a ditch for three days with his brother and others, and then was rescued to grow up in a Christian orphanage himself. Later he would dedicate his life to Christ, go into the ministry, be married, settle near Armenian villages in the Kessab area of Syria as their mutual pastor, start the building of a church in the village of Ekiz-Oluk, where my father was born, and then move to the city of Aleppo in 1913 where he was called as a pastor.
Consequently, Rev. Eskijian was a Protestant minister in the city of Aleppo, Syria, during the Genocide. His activities during this critical time included many ways to assist the Christian Armenians. “The deportations of 1915 opened vast avenues of service before him and his assistants. Aleppo was the crossroads on the highway of deportation. Thousands of Armenians were brought in by various means to be by deported to the slaughterhouses of Der Zor, Ras ul Ain, Sheddade and elsewhere to die of starvation and fatigue.
Buildings in Aleppo were filled with refugees and emptied to be filled again by newcomers, persecuted, half-naked and starving. Rev. Eskijian, and my grandmother, Mrs. Gulenia Eskijian, were busy every day with these people. Not only did they welcome many of these Armenians into their own home, but also served them outside their home in many hiding places. They administered food, medicine, money and protection to their utmost capacity, and opened orphanages for the children that could be saved.”[ii]
The following is summarized from the compilation of M.H. Shnorhokian: In 1915 Armenians poured into Aleppo setting up makeshift tents, perhaps their last homes, amid filth, lice, corpses, and starving, sick people waiting to be sent to the desert. At two notorious deportation centers Karlik and the Railway Station in Aleppo, Rev. Eskijian helped destitute Armenians. Rev. Eskijian would find hundreds of these desperate Armenians and save them from the death marches.
He had a special passport to enter these death stations and give help to the Armenians, which permit he utilized to the fullest. Giving up sleep, he listened for the sounds of the trains and headed to the stations. He went through the wagons and picked up the children, young girls and young men and brought them into town.
From a testimony of Rahel Megerdichian: Rev. Eskijian would also go to Karlik at night, picking up Armenian orphans, bringing them to his home under his coat. Mrs. Eskijian washed, clothed and fed them. He had agents who helped many Armenians to escape from Karlik, personally making a trip there to save Mrs. Megerdichian's brother.[iii]
Rev. Eskijian obtained financial assistance, which was transmitted to the needy, from different sources, including the American Embassy in Aleppo. He found employment for many boys, girls and young women as servants in different Arab families. He found employment for many young Armenians with the German Railroad Company, opening tunnels for the Berlin-Baghdad railway. He sent quinine and financial assistance to Armenian refugees.[iv]
He corresponded with the Mr. Jesse Jackson, the charge de affairs of the American Embassy to alleviate the suffering to the Armenians and tell the world. Soon after that came organized relief...thousands and thousands of lives were saved by his letter relief work.[v] The stories of his efforts and those with whom he labored, probably could fill volumes.
During the months when Protestant Armenians were immune from deportation, Rev. Eskijian used that opportunity to its fullest capacity. (He would go through the trains passing through Aleppo, and pick up the children, young women and men--whether Protestant or non-Protestant and bring them into town.[vi]
Then as now, the Christian Armenians had the opportunity to convert to Islam. As he said in one of his messages to his church as the dark clouds of war and Genocide fell on Aleppo: "Dear friends, be courageous. Let us die, but let no one deny his Lord. This honorable opportunity does not come to us often. I myself am ready for the gallows."[vii] He died the day before he was to be publicly hanged by the Turks for his activities. He had been warned several times by Turkish authorities to stop his humanitarian mission regarding incoming Armenian refugees. But he challenged that brutal order according to Bible truth: Obey God rather than men. Acts 5:29.[viii]
At the time of this writing, the same spiritual and political forces that operated to destroy the Armenian people and other Christians in Turkey one hundred years ago, are at work to annihilate Christians in the Middle East, Pakistan, the Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya, Indonesia, among other places, and in the same brutal manner. Christians, and others, are beheaded, crucified, abducted, enslaved, raped, murdered, and tortured, forced to convert to Islam, and a refugee population is created again. There is nothing new under the sun.
In 2014 alone the Der Zor memorial to the Armenian Genocide in Syria, an area where hundreds of thousands died, was destroyed by the Islamic State (ISIS). Churches and ancient manuscripts have been destroyed and burned in Syria, Iraq, and other places, crosses broken, graves destroyed. Grandfather’s grave in Aleppo was desecrated three times that I know of in the past. The first church Rev. Eskijian started to build as a pastor in the village of Ekiz-oluk (which my father completed) was bombed by the Al Nusra front -- an Al Qaeda faction. The city of Kessab, an Armenian enclave where he started ministry over 100 years ago, was emptied of Armenians in 2014. Aleppo, where Rev. Eskijian served, has become a war zone. Lately, in corresponding by email with a pastor in Syria, he reported nearby bombings, blown out windows, shortages, lack of food and water and electricity and terror. His quote, “we are living in the stone age.” And this is just a small picture of what is happening on a massive scale and history repeating itself.
The Genocide caused the death of 1.5 million Armenians, the dispersion of hundreds of thousands, including my father, grandmother, his brother, and several relatives both from my mother’s and father’s side of the family, the creation of over a hundred thousand orphans, many experiencing terrible fates, and a world of heinous crimes. I heard stories from my youngest years about miraculous escapes and tragedies. My cousin’s grandfather was burnt alive in a church with other ministers, and her other grandfather was burnt alive in a building. Another cousin’s grandmother refused to convert to Islam and her children died of starvation.
My sister-in-law’s father and aunt miraculously escaped death, two young children in the Syrian desert. My great grandmother escaped the City of Van, where the Turks were exterminating the Armenians with her son on her back walking into Russia. The Turks came three times to kill my young father and his remaining family. It wasn’t just a few Armenians that had these stories; nearly every Armenian family had such stories. These narratives had impact on my view of life, as well as my siblings. We learned that life is serious and that massive pain can be inflicted, that our forefathers suffered greatly, and to be thankful for our safe, free and prosperous lives in the United States, using the opportunity to help others.
However, we also learned of the triumph of Rev. Eskijian’s life in Christ, and the many who served with him in his underground efforts, in the middle of suffering and under great pressure. John Minassian, his young assistant, estimated that thousands of Armenians were saved from death by his efforts, and the efforts of those who joined him in this endeavor.
Several years ago and two generations later, I attended a conference as a pastor for my church. There were leaders from all over the world, including a Turkish minister. I was curious about this man, such an anomaly, a Turkish convert from Islam now a minister, and prayed that I could meet him. I wanted to tell him what had happened to the Armenian people, see his response to the horrible crimes against humanity committed by his country and people, but also see what common ground we had in Christ.
One morning I had an opportunity to meet him. I went to him and explained how my grandfather, Rev. Hovhannes Eskijian had served his people in Aleppo, that he perished during the Armenian Genocide, the unfolding tragedy that he and others, tried to alleviate, that my family knew of many people who had died or whose lives were disrupted by this horrific event. Unexpectedly, I began to weep. At that point the pastor did what the prophets of old did in scripture, he repented with a true heart on behalf of the Turkish people, standing in the gap, and he did, as a brother in Christ would do, embraced me in his arms.
Perhaps such an event many years after the Genocide is a foretaste of the only way, I believe, there will be conclusion of this sad and terrible history, a God conclusion, not a man conclusion. As all Armenians, I personally feel grief and anger, and want to see admission of guilt by the Turkish government, justice and restitution on earth. I have no right to forgive on behalf of those who perished and suffered. But by standing in the gap as a Christian there is a resolution. Someday God will settle all scores on earth at the great white throne judgment, and someday He promises to wipe away all tears—no looking back. Right now it is our job to pray for and assist our brothers and sisters. I think this is how Rev. Eskijian would have viewed it.
The author may be reached at email@example.com
[i] Website of the Armenian Genocide Museum Institute, National Academy of Sciences, Republic of Armenia
[ii] Garabed Keverian, Tchanasser, No. 24, 1951
[iii] Testimony of Rahel Megerdichian. Her husband Dr. Samuel Megerdichian of Kessab, was a classmate of Rev. Eskijian in Central Turkey College.
[iv] Keverian, Tchanasser.
[v] From an article written by John Minassian on the 10th anniversary of Rev. Eskijian's death. Mr. Minassian's life was saved through the efforts of Rev. Eskijian.
[vi] Rev. E. Elmajian testimonial.
[vii] Letter of Mrs. Yvenigi Jebijian, March 15, 1953, Aleppo, Syria.
[viii] The statement of the policeman is taken from a letter of Mrs. Rahel Megerdichian, dated January 20, 1959.