May marks the anniversary of one of the most heinous crimes of human history – the genocide of the Pontian people by the by the Ottoman Government, directed by a group of leaders known as the Young Turks. It is well established that in the carnage, in which approximately 350,000 Pontic Greeks, 700,000 Assyrians and 1,500,000 Armenians were killed, simply because they happened to be of the ‘wrong’ race, ordinary Ottoman Muslims participated in the loot and tacitly or actively supported the slaughter. Today, an apology or even an acknowledgment of the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia by the Turkish government is not forthcoming, pouring salt into the wounds of the few survivors and their descendants, who, dislocated from their ancestral lands, have had to save their culture piecemeal, as well as deal with inherited traumas induced by the memory of brutality.
Modern day Greek historiography of the event, patchy as it is, tends to focus on the enormity of the crime. However, while it cannot be doubted that there was mass participation in the genocide, with eyewitness and contemporary accounts attesting to hapless Christians being harassed and killed by their muslim neighbours, it has to be remembered that many ordinary Muslims actually helped Christians and many Ottoman administrators refused to follow orders. Mass participation does not necessarily signify universal participation. Many Muslim groups and individuals including army officers and high ranking public officials either refused to participate, refused to carry out orders and/or assisted any Christians to escape certain death.
Most sources on the genocide readily identify Turks, Kurds, Lazes and Circassians as participants to the massacres of the Chrstians. To this the Persians who attacked Armenians and Assyrians in Salmas and Ourmiah should be added, as well as the Georgian Muslims who were also privy to mass killing of Armenians and Greeks in Ottoman Empire.
Taner Akçam’s narrative concerning Hadji Halil of Urfa who housed seven people of the same family in his attic to save them from the massacres illustrates the humanity of many Ottoman muslims. Hadji Halil promised his Armenian friend that he would protect his family in the event of calamity. Hadji Halil kept his promise and housed the family for months. Hadji Halil had to overcome logistical problems including how to buy food for seven extra people without raising suspicion. There exist many other similar stories.
Many unnamed individuals helped their neighbours to escape. For instance, one Pontian genocide survivor would show interested parties ‘scars’ he carried from that period of his life. Tattoos on his right arm depicted an Arab knife and the Islamic crescent. There were done by local Muslims to disguise Christians as Muslims in order to save them.
There were also such groups as the Mevlevi order in Konya and the people of Dersim, who helped Christians and while many Kurdish tribes carried out the Pontian genocide, others helped Christians by hiding them. For example, in Dersim 20,000 Armenians and Greeks were saved because of Kurdish efforts. In Ras-ul-Ain, while some Chechens attacked Christians, other Chechens “saved around 400 to 500” deportees and the Jabbur Arabs sheltered many of these.
Professor Selim Deringil in his research mentions situations where Christian children were adopted into Muslim families in order to save them, despite the government issuing an order against this. He has also compiled evidence of functionaries who did not obey orders and who for obvious reasons are overlooked in the official narrative in Turkey. For instance, the governor of Konya, Celal Bey, did not permit the Konya Christians to be deported because he knew what would have happened to them if they were sent to the deserts of Deir Zor. Where possible he also tried to prevent Christians from other places to be sent to the deserts. He was removed from his post in October 1915 but he had already saved many lives. He remained unemployed until 1919.
Other examples include, the Governor of Ankara Hasan Mazhar, who was removed from his post for refusing to deport Christians in the August of 1915, the Mutasarrıf of Kütahya Faik Ali Bey, who refused to deport about 2,000 Christians, (later he became permanent undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic) and the mayor of Malatya Mustafa Ağa Azizoğlu. Malatya was a transit place for those who were deported from the Eastern provinces. The mayor did not have authority to prevent deportation but saved people in his house by providing refuge. A true humanitarian, he was tragically killed by his son, a member of Union and Progress, for “looking after infidels”. To this list Reşit, Vali of Kastamonu in Pontus, who was also dismissed for not complying with the extermination campaign and the Mutassarıf of Yozgat, Cemal Bey, should also be added. Last, but not least, Tahsin Bey, Vali of Erzurum should also be remembered as one of the heroes who defied orders, thus saving hundreds of Pontians and ArmeniansIn refusing to follow orders, the governor of Ankara, Hasan Mazhar Bey, , had reportedly said “I am a Vali not a bandit. I cannot do this. Another person may come and sit in my chair. They can do it”. Accordingly, he was removed from office in the August of 1915.
When the tehcir (deportation) orders were issued in Kütahya, Faik Ali Bey refused to implement them. Because of his insubordination, he was summoned to Istanbul. The Kütahya Police Chief, taking advantage of Faik Ali Bey’s absence, called Christian notables of the city to a meeting in which he asked them to convert to Islam, or else, face deportation. The Kütahya Christians decided to apply for conversion to Islam en masse. When Faik Ali Bey returned from Istanbul, he was enraged. He removed the police chief from his post and asked the Christians to tear apart the collective application for conversion to Islam, saying :“till today Kütahya Turks have never participated in any atrocities against the Christians, and will not participate tomorrow either.” Ali Fuat Ender, during the period when he was the Commander of the Fourth Army, wrote that “a telegram arrived from the Provincial Administration of Aleppo: ‘Today the bandits Halil and Ahmet Beys visited me, they told me that the business of the killings in Diyarbakır were completed and now they came to do the same in Syria. I arrested them.” Celal Bey, governor of Aleppo made strenuous efforts to save the Christians in his jurisdiction. When he did so, the Ottoman administration created an autonomous sandjak (in Marash, independent from the Province of Aleppo, thereby truncating Celal Bey’s authority. Celal Bey admitted that originally he believed that the deportations were an internal and temporary measure necessitated by the War. He could not believe that the government would take such measures to actually destroy its own citizens. In any case, as he did not believe any Christian in Aleppo committed an act which would necessitate their exile, he refused to implement the deportation orders. As a consequence, he was removed from his post and transferred to the position of Vali in Konya. The misery he witnessed in Konya caused him to liken himself to “a person sitting by the side of a river, with absolute no means of saving anyone. Blood was flowing in the river and thousands of innocent children, irreproachable old people, helpless women, strong young men, were streaming down this river towards oblivion. Anyone I could save with my bare hands I saved, and the others, I think they streamed down the river never to return.”
In his memoirs Celal Bey also made the following observations to state that the Turks and the Muslims have only been used as tools [by the government]:
1) When I was in Aleppo I saw with my own eyes Muslim helping the Christians who were deported there.
2) Some farm owners came to me and told me that they wanted to house Christians in their properties.
3) Both in Aleppo and in Konya, many members of the ulema (Muslim clerical council)and the notables thanked me many times for my treatment of the Christians and that protecting them was required by the Sharia.
4) Both in Konya and in Aleppo, I have not seen or heard of any Turk usurping Christian property.
5) Among the Turks and the Muslims I met no one who supported these murders and who did not find them shameful.
6) After I returned from Konya many of my acquaintances congratulated me and that they told me it was more honourable to leave my posting.
Many other high ranking officials have paid with their lives for disobeying orders. As well as being responsible for massacres against the Pontians, Armenians and Assyrians, Dr Reşit Şahingiray, the governor of the Province of Diyarbakır, was alleged to have murdered a number of Turkish officials who refused to carry out his orders: “Vali of Basra Ferit, Mutasarrıf of Müntefek, Bedii Nuri, Kaymakam of Lice Hüseyin, Deputy Kaymakam of BeşiriSabit, journalist İsmail Mestan; all socialists and/or humanists”. Dr Reşit also tried to assassinate the Mutasarrıf of Mardin, Hilmi Bey, who was removed from office. His successor Shefik Bey was also removed for not following orders.
The Dominican priest Marie-Dominique Berré in his comprehensive report on the Massacres in Mardin notes that
“[t]owards the middle of May 1915, Doctor Raschid [Reşit] Bey, vali of Diarbékir, sent to Mutasarrif of Mardin, Hilmi Bey, the order to imprison all Christian notables of that city. Hilmi Bey responded by this telegram, the authenticity of which I guarantee: ‘I am not a man without conscience; I have nothing against the Christians of Mardin; I will not execute these orders.’ A few days later Hilmi Bey was discharged.”
Another Dominican source identifies an army officer, Saudki Bey, who helped Christians escape certain death. “In Urfa “Don Jean, leader of the Syrian community escaped death only by the intervention of major Saudki Bey, who removed his name from the list of Christians who were to be arrested and put to death. This Sauki Bey had a great sympathy for the Christians . He also informed Deir Wartan, the leader of the Armenian Catholic Community, to run away to Aleppo.”
The Christian nations that fell victim to the heinous tragedy that was the Genocide of Anatolian Christians must make efforts to further research the laudable acts of those Muslim humanitarians that risked their reputation, social standing, careers and their lives so as not to take part in the depravity of the genocide. By seeking out their descendants, acknowledging them and thanking them, the discourse of the genocide can move from an adversarial one, where the primary focus is centered upon compelling the perpetrators to apologize, to a resolution whereby the presence of dissenters within the perpetrating nation obviates the need for an apology. This type of resolution removes political considerations from the issue of Genocide denial and instead focuses on the humanitarian aspect, emphasizing the importance of people who refuse to follow orders, refuse to harm others for the sake of conformity but, transcending ethnic and religious boundaries, are able to take a principled stand against the acts of their own people. If their deeds were better known, it would be exceedingly more difficult for perpetrators to perpetuate the charade that there was no genocide. Why then, was the sacrifice of these brave people made necessary.
Ayhan Aktar expresses that “I feel proud of having born in the same country as these people and I respectfully bow to their precious memory.” When we remember the slain, we should feel humbled and moved at the sacrifice of the righteous Muslims who assisted Christians to escape slaughter. Jesus’ words, central to the Christian teaching, that “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends," compels the Orthodox Church, as well as the Greek state to erect a monument to these most brave people, whose example is a beacon of humanity in a region riven by religious and ethnic strife. Their memory should give their descendants pause to reflect and resolve that their future, should abound in peace, tolerance and respect. Their righteous ancestors can show them how this can be done. Αιωνία τους η μνήμη.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 June 2011 and 11 June 2011
Please note: the above article is based primarily on the research and writings of Dr Racho Donef, who the author thanks profusely.