Today, we mark the hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. On April 24th, 1915, the nationalist Young Turks attempted to wipe out the Armenians, the oldest Christian nation, which adopted Christianity twelve years before the Edict of Milan. On this solemn anniversary, it is worth recalling the great aid European and American Christians and Jews gave the Armenians. This legacy should lead us to not remain silent in the face of today’s extermination of Middle Eastern Christians and to fight the politically convenient yet disturbing tendency to deny that what happened in the Ottoman Empire a century ago was genocide.
For centuries, the Armenians lived in relative peace in the Ottoman Empire. The Koran’s stance towards non-Christians is inconsistent. At some points, it advocates the persecution of all non-Muslims (kaffirs), but in others it advocates tolerance for Christians and Jews, as they are “peoples of the Book.” The Ottomans applied the latter passages with regards to the followers of Abrahamic religions in its millet system, which gave religious minorities self-rule.
This ended abruptly in 1894-6, when Sultan Abdul Hamid II massacred at least 200,000 Armenians and occasionally Greeks and Arab Christians in his attempt at Islamizing the Ottoman Empire. By 1908, the Young Turks overthrew Hamid’s autocratic rule and introduced constitutional democracy. The Young Turks were nationalists and religious chauvinists. Although they detested religion and wanted French-style laïcité for Turkey, they turned Islam into a marker of national identity. On April 24th, 1915, the Young Turks began the mass murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians, whom they saw as an obstacle to the creation of an ethnically and religiously homogenous state and whose pro-Russian sympathies they distrusted. This was the twentieth century’s first genocide.
In his Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, Peter Balakian argues that Abdul Hamid’s massacres sparked the “first international human rights movement in American history.” Throughout the nineteenth century, American Protestants sent missionaries to Armenia, finding the already-Christian Armenians more willing converts than the Muslim Turks. The missionaries set up a college as well as many schools and a hospital. Thanks to these missionaries, Armenia was a familiar name to many Americans by 1894.
In 1894-1896, American churches—Catholic and Protestant alike–—collected millions of dollars of humanitarian relief for the “starving Armenians.” Sunday school students across the United States were encouraged to give part of their allowance to help Armenian children. In an early example of Jewish-Christian solidarity, Jews also fought for the Armenians: in 1909, the Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution urging European states to protect the Armenians. In 1896, Congress passed a resolution condemning the sultan’s atrocities, the first Congressional resolution defending human rights abroad.
When the Young Turks began killing Armenians, American Christians and Jews once again came to the defense of Armenians. Once again, churches and synagogues organized aid. Before the United States entered the Great War in 1917, American public opinion put increasing pressure on isolationist President Woodrow Wilson; human rights abuses by the Central Powers, specifically German mistreatment of Belgians and the Armenian Genocide, convinced Americans that they could not remain neutral in the face of barbarism.
The son of a Presbyterian theologian, Wilson was a devout Christian. He knew of the Armenians’ ancient Christianity and felt a moral imperative to help them. When World War I concluded, Wilson fought for an independent Armenia. The twelfth of his “Fourteen Points” said that non-Turks in the Ottoman Empire “be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” While it does not explicitly mention Armenia, this part of his speech was inspired by its plight. Wilson also wanted to create an independent Armenia under an American mandate, although he failed to gain Congressional approval and Turkey and Russia partitioned Armenia before this was possible.
Meanwhile, in 1915, Quaker minister James Levi Barton and Presbyterian philanthropist Cleveland Hoadley Dodge formed the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian relief. They believed it was their moral obligation to save their Christian brethren in the Middle East. The committee raised tens of millions of dollars through church collections and public rallies for Armenians. The organization enjoyed the President Wilson’s support.
In Europe, many Christians also came to the Armenians’ defense. Most prominent among them was Pope Benedict XV. Benedict instructed his apostolic delegate in Constantinople, Monsignor Luigi Dolci, to protest the unfolding genocide to the Turkish government. In September 1915, Benedict sent a letter to Sultan Mehmed V imploring him to intervene to end the murders. The pope also instructed his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, to pressure the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany to intervene to stop their Turkish ally’s genocide. Cardinal Gasparri informed the Germans and Austro-Hungarians that if they didn’t stop the genocide of Armenians, their indifference would make them share the Turks’ culpability.
Many Catholic and Protestant missionaries worked to save Armenians from certain death. Of these many heroes, two deserve special mention. Estonian-German Protestant Anna Hedwig Büll taught in an orphanage in Cilicia. During the genocide, she saved 2,000 Armenian women and children by hiding them there.
While the German government was allied with the Turks and turned a blind eye to the Armenian atrocities, Lutheran pastor Johannes Lepsius documented them. He published his Report on the Situation of the Armenian People in Turkey, which was ultimately banned by the Kaiser’s government, although he successfully distributed 20,000 copies across Germany. This report informed German public opinion of the horrific events in Armenia and increased the German missionaries’ zeal in aiding the Armenians.
Today, because Turkey, a member of NATO, is a loyal American ally, the United States refuses to recognize the Armenian Genocide. The case of Barack Obama is a particularly cynical one. During his 2008 presidential campaign, he promised Armenian-American voters that as president he would call the events of 1915-1917 “a genocide.” He has yet to do so. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has criticized the idea of condemning the Armenian Genocide, claiming that doing so would infringe on Armenian holocaust deniers’ freedom of speech.
The great commitment of Christians and Jews across the Atlantic to aid the beleaguered Armenians was prophetic. A half-century before Nostra Aetate, at a time when Catholics, Protestants, and Jews regarded each other with mutual suspicion, an international army including American rabbis, Quaker ministers, Italian popes and Estonian missionaries fled to the Armenians’ defense. While most Armenians living under Turkish rule were killed, many were saved by heroic missionaries or avoided starvation thanks to relief from American churches. Meanwhile, two of the world’s most influential men—the pope and the American president—were spokesmen for the Armenians.
This great defense of the persecuted Armenians remains relevant. Like in 1915, ancient Christian communities in the Middle East today face extermination from Islamic radicals. We should remember that today’s Christians of Iraq and Syria need their Western co-religionists’ aid and bold defense as much as the Armenians did a century ago. Meanwhile, we cannot remain indifferent to the politically convenient denial of the Armenian Genocide coming from the mouths of top officials in Washington and Ankara. If we cannot call genocide by name, how can we be sure it will happen “never again”?
Filip Mazurczak has an MA in international relations from The George Washington University. He has published in a variety of magazines, including The European Conservative, Visegrad Insight, and Tygodnik Powszechny.