The President of Turkish Armenian Foundations Union Bedros Şirinoğlu Interview
Turkey is a secular democratic country whose population is predominantly Muslim. Also for the US and Europe, Turkey's strategic position is paramount One of the mostly discussed issues pertaining to Turkey is the issue of religious minorities.
How do Armenians, one of the minority communities whose numbers are declining day by day, live in various parts of Turkey? What is the current Erdoğan government’s minority policy? Bedros Şirinoğlu, chairman of Turkish Armenian Foundations Union and Surp Pırgiç Hospital Foundation, has answered our questions. According to Şirinoğlu, Turkey’s minorities enjoy rights and freedoms granted to them by the Erdoğan government.
Interview: Pınar Işık Ardor
As a member of one of the minority groups in Turkey, can you tell us about your life in Turkey? There are currently negative statements on the conditions of minorities living in Turkey, especially made by a number of Western countries. What do you think about them? How is being an Armenian in Turkey?
“Our living conditions improved after Mr. Erdoğan”
I have just turned 67 this year. When I was a child, we could not even have our schools painted.. We could do that only if they ignored. However, we have witnessed a significant improvement regarding to our condition in Turkey after Mr Erdoğan. You cannot imagine how… Whenever I requested an appointment to discuss our problems, he never had turned me down. I am also the Chairman of Armenian Foundations Union. I am also the Chairman of all Armenian Foundations’ Chairmen. I am aware of all our problems... Erdoğan
In the old times, whenever you said “Armenian”, people used to grimace. But now, these sort of people have declined considerably in number. Whenever we requested something, AK Party administration immediately granted it. Needless to say President Erdoğan was behind that.
What did you request from President Erdoğan, and what was his response?
“The cross was mounted in its place just over a night”
Take, for example, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Akdamar. Yesterday, it was performed a religious ceremony. Cathedral of the Holy Cross was restored by UNESCO during the time of Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan. Mr Mutafyan had the cross of the cathedral prepared and wanted the cross to be mounted in its place. But they said dome of the cathedral was not strong enough to hold it. But, the reason behind this was that they just did not want to mount it. Then, I asked a favor from Mr Erdoğan telling “Our cathedral was reconstructed, but they do not allow us to mount the cross on the top of the dome. I am asking for your help regarding this issue .” He said “do not worry about it” and it was done! The cross was mounted just over a night. 10 days later, AGOS (An Armenian bilingual weekly newspaper) published on the cover page: “An invisible hand had the cross mounted”…
Your were the invisible hand...
Yes. Mr Erdoğan was the Prime Minister back then. I told: “Just as there is no mosque without a minaret, so there is no church without a cross.” For instance, I wanted to establish a museum. We started the process in 2014, and Mr Erdoğan attended the opening as well. Moreover, the problems of many cathedrals were solved by the very same administration. We have poor children, and our schools barely survive. The government have supported in this regard, too. We established our cemeteries, completely restored our churches and schools, and even built new schools.
Some groups in Europe and the USA sometimes claim that there is pressureon minorities in Turkey. Is it true?
“They are unreal scripts”
I free heartedly say we are very comfortable. What you have just mentioned is just a black propaganda. To me, it is a setup. Their main purpose is to put Turkey into trouble. Neither there have been a problem with our churches nor have they been closed since my childhood. Some impertinent people sometimes threw a stone at our church or wrote on its walls. But, we have never had such a problem with the state. We are freely practicing our faith and conducting our lives.
Do you see any hostility towards Armenians on the street? Especially in Europe, racism is pretty muchon the rise in recent years. Do you experience such incidents in Turkey?
“The 1915 incident was a setup. the actual aim was dissolution of the ottoman empire”
We used to do this among ourselves in my childhood. There were some people calling “little infidel”, or saying “do not behave like an infidel”. However, how many such people there were? We Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries. Our friends do not have any negative feelings about us. We freely go to our home, to our work. My closest friends are Muslims. But, there had always been imperialist plans on Turkey. The 1915 incident was just one of them. The main objective was dissolving of the Ottoman Empire.
*”do not behave like an infidel” is an ancient idiom in Turkish meaning “do not be so pitiless, cruel”
As an Armenian, you call the 1915 incident a setupt, but we will talk about this issue again in April. We will face some accusations and reparations claimsagain.
“I do not believe the mentioned numbers”
We will always argue about it, and it will never end. Look, Mr. President condoled about this issue. I also condoled for our Muslim brothers who died in 1915, with a newspaper announcement. He is the first president ever to express us his condolences. We were deceived in 1915. We, I mean Armenians... They perfectly exploited Armenians. Imperialist powers were at work at that time as well. They even made two brothers fight each other. We have talked about Malazgirt. There were also Armenians with Sultan Alparslan. Armenians lived under the Byzantian rule, but they had always had a low status. They eventually said “ok, we embrace Ottoman turban rather than Byzantine Empire.
Armenians are loyal to their homeland, and they do not betray. Nevertheless, some groups among them were deceived. These incidents happened because of these groups. Imperialists armed Armenians by using so-called Armenian intellectuals. Then they informed Ottomans on Armenians saying, “Armenians you have trusted have been bearing arms.” The Sultan charged vizier on that issue. They came and saw that Armenians were armed, and then instructed to collect these arms. Therefore, these arms were buried into the walls in Anatolia.
Furthermore, I do not believe that mentioned numbers on losses are correct, because most of the people emigrated in those days. They went to Lebanon, Syria, Iran, the US and Australia. The number of lives lost is not as many as it is claimed to be. Of course, there were deaths, but relatives, neighbors and brothers, even they killed one another.
Some groups are not happy with your comments. In addition, you have been targeted. Apparently, they expect you, as an Armenian, to speak differently.
“If you do not admit what they say, you are an enemy to them”
I am a pro-state man. I do not betray the state that I live in. Yes, I am Armenian, but also I am a citizen of the Republic of Turkey. Our opinions on this issue is that you shall not betray your country, and should be loyal to your homeland. It is also written in the Holy Bible. Once you stand against the people with different agendas, they definitely turn against you. They have such a mindset as if you are an enemy to them if you are with them. By the way, these groups are not such a do not constitute a large number… At most, 150 – 200 people... People believing that the 1915 incident happened are more than those who do not believe… But, to discuss this is pointless. They were deceived and antagonized. Their purposes were to divide the Ottoman Empire and to initiate a brain drain. Both Jews, Armenians and Greeks were wealthy people back then. Now, the Armenian population in Turkey is declining. And it will decline continually. Their fertility rate is lower than the mortality rate. Furthermore, there are mixed marriages as well.
When examining Turkey – US relations, we have a pastor crisis. Have this become a threat to you? For instance, have one of the priests from your community ever worried that the same might happen to them?
I think it would not be right. In addition, I have never heard of such a thing. However, there might be those who came from abroad and conducted similar activities, might have been worried and fled the country. However, it is not possible that our community or other minority communities worry about anything concerning themselves.
Do you know Pastor Brunson?
No, I do not. Let me tell you about a story about what happened to me a couple of years ago. There is an undivided empire, I mean Ottoman Empire. Now, some claim Mr Erdoğan is trying to revive Ottoman Empire. When the story I will tell happened to me, Mr Erdoğan were not even in power. I was told, in a country, “we will bury undivided empire, Ottoman, and you into the Central Anatolia.” I answered, “You are going to have some trouble by doing that.”
Which country was it? Who were these people?
I will not tell you. Do you know what the greatest problem of Turkey is? We do not have educated people. And brain drain as well… They know rich men. They took educated people in other countries. It is a serious danger for us.
We are the only secular country among all the Muslim countries How does secularism operate in Turkey?
“Nobody disturbs anybody else in Turkey”
We are definitely secular. We have many religious people as well. Now, they associate the rise of Islamic piety in Turkey with Mr Erdoğan. They say “secularism is in danger.” I think it is not true. I live in Kinaliada. There are people going swimming in their bikinis and burkinis side by side. Nobody is disturbs anybody else. Of course, there are some showmen. Their purpose is to create trouble. They blame Mr Erdoğan for everything, and I find this incredible. We cannot get anywhere like this. Yet, Mr Erdoğan has a problem. He has a few people to trust. I have the same problem as well.
After the FETO unrevealed, people seem to be confused to figure out who serves to whom. A dangerous organization, which had already infiltrated into the state, tried to seize the state. Is it not normal to have these concerns?
I found a text, written in a four-page notebook, 40 years ago. In it, it was indicated what they were going to do. I sensed something then, but was not sure. Disguising themselves, infiltrating into important positions and so on. Yes, there was such a plan upon Turkey. For what did they do it? How? Why did they want to seize the government of Turkey? It is not clear who is friend with whom in today’s world order. For instance, you may develop many theories about what is happening in Syria.
Do you think the US will extradite Fethullah Gulen?
No, they won’t. They would rather make him disappear than extraditing him.
You are friends with Greek and Jewish minorities, apart from Armenians, as well. Do they agree with you?
“Mr. Erdoğan is a great-hearted man. He stands for the downtrodden”
Yes, they do. We agree with one another apart from the 1915 incident. Our Jewish friends in here are also pro-state people. It is true for Greeks, too, but Partriarch Bartholomeos is a bit more cautious and distant. He is a well-educated man as much as he is distant. Jews love their state, but also they are principled people. They do not sacrifice their principles. Jews living in here never betray Turkey, but they are loyal to Israel, too. The Boss of the entire world is the US.yet its boss are Jews. We had a “one minute” incident, right? This incident is also behind what’s going on in Turkey right now. Mr Erdoğan is a greathearted man. He stands for the downtrodden. Perhaps, the world may not be accustomed to that.
Foreign exchange rates in Turkey have instantly increased, and public opinion on it is that an economic war is being waged on Turkey. What do you think is behind that?
Playing with Turkish economy is nothing new. It also happened when Tansu Ciller administration was in power. I made a report to Ms. Ciller back then. I said “Unless certain measures is taken, it will be a disaster.” It was read out in an important meeting. Look, I believe that Turkey does not have a current deficit problem. If they had authorized me, you would see if Turkey had that problem or not. It is not current deficit, but ripping Turkey off. They are defrauding Turkey. Tax auditing should be more strict. Do not import goods that can be produced in Turkey.