Some of the policies and actions that make the Republic of Turkey different from other nations are not only its proud and aggressive denial of the many crimes it has committed over the decades, but also its physical and verbal attacks–on an international scale–against the descendants of the survivors of those crimes.
These attacks include vandalism against genocide memorials outside of Turkey, diplomatic pressure on governments that recognize the genocide, as well as on those who erect monuments to commemorate the victims and carry out other commemorative activities.
The Turkish nation’s greatest crime is the 1913-1923 genocide committed against Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek Christians in Ottoman Turkey. Approximately 3.5 million Christians were killed in this ‘jihad genocide,’ which targeted them because of their religion and ethnicity in an attempt to create “Turkey for the Turks.”
In 2007, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) recognized the genocide as such and called upon “the government of Turkey to acknowledge the genocides against these populations, to issue a formal apology, and to take prompt and meaningful steps toward restitution.”
Many genocide survivors fled or were deported to European countries and other nations. Their descendants have since advocated for the international recognition of their suffering. In response, the Turkish governments and Turkish nationalists have attempted to silence their efforts.
On August 27, a monument in Jette, a commune of the Brussels Region in Belgium, commemorating Assyrian genocide victims was vandalized and defaced with derogatory remarks. A municipal official of Jette whom I contacted said “they launched an investigation of the incident but could not identify the perpetrators on the security cameras.”
This was not the first time a genocide memorial has been desecrated in Belgium. A memorial to the victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide located in Ixelles, a municipality in Brussels, was vandalized in April last year.
The monument was defaced with an insult that appeared to say “F*** Paylan” (referring to Garo Paylan, an Armenian member of the Turkish parliament) and three crescent moons, a reference to the Ottoman flag and Turkish-Islamic nationalism.
A statement from the Committee of the Armenians in Belgium appealed for public condemnation: “In the name of living together and the fight against all forms of racism, the Committee calls on public figures and associations to recognize this as an incitement to hatred. In particular, we call on the associations of communities of Turkish origin to condemn this act.”
Genocide memorials in France have also been subject to Turkish aggression: for instance, a memorial center outside Lyon to the Armenian genocide was defaced in 2020 with pro-Turkish slogans including “Grey Wolves” and “RTE” (a reference to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan).
Following this incident, the French interior minister, Gerard Darmanin, announced on Twitter that the Turkish Grey Wolves group was banned in France. “It incites discrimination and hatred and is implicated in violent actions,” he wrote. The Grey Wolves are a violent, fascist, Turkish supremacist group aiming to establish a Turkic empire from the Balkans to Central Asia.
Further afield, Australia has witnessed Turkish attacks against genocide victims. In 2015, a monument to the victims of the Assyrian genocide in Sydney was defaced with Nazi imagery and abuse towards Jews, Armenians, and Assyrians (AINA 2015-04-16). Australian media reported that it was the third time the memorial has been vandalized since it was erected in 2010.
Greece has also been targeted by Turks for commemorating the Turkish genocide against ethnic Greeks in Anatolia. Around 350,000 Pontic Greeks, who lived in the cities on the shores of the Black Sea (Pontus), were among the victims of the broader 1913-23 Greek genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire and Turkish nationalists. Many descendants of the survivors of the genocide now live in Greece. The government of Greece commemorates this genocide every year–to which Turkey traditionally responds to with anger and condemnation.
In 2006, for instance, after opening a memorial in the Greek city of Thessaloniki dedicated to the victims of the Pontic Greek genocide, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on its official website that they were “grieved” by its opening and that the “claims of the so-called ‘Pontic genocide’ have no historical or scientific basis and are all about distorting historical facts.”
In 2022, on the 103rd anniversary of the Pontic Greek genocide, the Greek president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, issued a statement in which she called on the international community to recognize the systematic extermination of Pontic Greeks by Turks. She said, in part:
The international community has a manifest obligation to safeguard historical knowledge by recognizing this unconscionable crime. Today’s anniversary in particular, coming at a time when authoritarian revisionism poses a direct threat to global stability, serves as a deterrent so that we may never experience such atrocities again.
Turkey, in response, lashed out, with its foreign ministry issuing a statement saying:
We categorically reject the delusional statements made by the Greek authorities on the pretext of the anniversary of the unfounded ‘Pontic’ claims, which completely distort history. It is clear that the efforts of those who try to draw enmity from history and mislead the young generations will not serve peace and stability.
Turkey’s efforts to erase the memory of its Christian genocide have reached Israel as well.
In March 2023, a square dedicated to the Armenian genocide was inaugurated in the Israeli city of Haifa. The Armenian National Committee of Jerusalem said that Turkey’s embassy in Tel Aviv “exerted great pressure” on city officials to renege on the square naming and the inauguration event.
Turkey’s ambassador to Israel also protested the naming of the square. The initiative “heavily carries the potential of deteriorating these bonds which the peoples and the governments of Israel and Türkiye wish to improve,” wrote Sakir Özkan Torunlar in a letter to the mayor of Haifa, Einat Kalisch-Rotem. Torunlar, in his letter, demanded that the mayor reverse the decision to commemorate the genocide by naming the square, and falsely claimed that “such an act of genocide has never been committed in the history of the Turkish nation.”
As Dr. Gregory H. Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch, notes, denial is the last stage of genocide:
It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide dig up the mass graves, burn the bodies, try to cover up the evidence and intimidate the witnesses. They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims. They block investigations of the crimes and continue to govern until driven from power by force, when they flee into exile. There they remain with impunity, like Pol Pot or Idi Amin, unless they are captured and a tribunal is established to try them. The response to denial is punishment by an international tribunal or national courts. There the evidence is heard, and the perpetrators punished. Tribunals like the Yugoslav or Rwanda Tribunals, the tribunal to try the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, or the International Criminal Court may not deter the worst killers. But with the political will to arrest and prosecute them, some may be brought to justice. And such courts may deter future potential genocidists who can never again share Hitler’s expectation of impunity when he sneered, ‘Who, after all, remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?
Despite having killed, deported, or otherwise persecuted hundreds of thousands of its own citizens during the genocide, Turkey’s government has escaped accountability. Moreover, Turkey has accelerated its efforts to prevent other governments from recognizing the genocide. When the Swedish parliament recognized the Armenian genocide in 2010, for instance, Turkey condemned the resolution and recalled its ambassador to Sweden.
Since Turkey has enjoyed full impunity, it has continued committing similar crimes. For instance, Turkey has assisted its ally, Azerbaijan, in its starvation of 120,000 Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh for the past nine months. On September 19, Azerbaijan–with the help of Turkey–launched yet another military assault against the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, killing children, destroying homes, and terrorizing starving families. The Azerbaijanian invasion has led to the forced displacement of Armenians from their homeland, where they have lived for millennia.
The Turkish army has also occupied northern Cyprus since 1974 and parts of northern Syria since 2016. The Turkish army regularly violates Greek airspace and territorial waters, raising tensions in the Aegean Sea. The Turkish military regularly bombs Iraq in the name of “fighting PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) terrorism” while terrorizing Yazidis, Assyrians, and Kurds in Iraq. Inside Turkey, human rights violations abound, such as torture against prisoners and arbitrary arrests of political dissidents. All the crimes Turkey is committing today are occurring in parallel with its denial of its 1913-23 Christian genocide.
A genocide denied is genocide continued. If a government can so easily get away with massacring 3.5 million people, it has reason to assume that it can get away with everything else. But no matter what type of pressure Turkey exerts on governments to make them forget its mass-murder of Christians, the civilized world must stand with the victims and hold the government of Turkey to account for its past and present crimes.
By Uzay Bulut