There are those, mostly scholars in Armenia, who vehemently deny the Armenian ethnic identity to anyone who is not of the Christian faith, particularly of the Orthodox persuasion. They claim that being Armenian automatically assumes and implies Christianity.
This logic would be acceptable except for the fact that Armenians, as an ethnic group, existed long before Christianity or their conversion to it in a bloody and violent manner. The switch to the religion that now identifies us was not a peaceful one and St. Gregory the Illuminator himself waged the war.
Armenia, two millennia ago, had a varied population. Strategically located at the crossroads of the region, many cultures passed through the area while some chose to make it their permanent home. As a result, the Armenia of that day was culturally diverse, religiously tolerant and very cosmopolitan.
Legend has it that upon King Drtad’s miraculous cure at the hands of St. Gregory the Illuminator, he immediately converted to the magical new religion and proclaimed Armenia to now be a Christian state. Everyone was to set aside their previous religious beliefs which they’d held for hundreds of years in favor of a new one and live happily ever after in the afterglow of their new found religion. But the story doesn’t end there. Or even begin there.
King Drtad was the infant son of Khosrov II when he was assassinated by Anak, an Armenian operating as an agent for the Persian Empire. St. Gregory was the son of Anak who, as an adult, returned to Armenia and worked for King Drtad without informing him of his true identity.
The legend taught to Armenian children today does not include this fact. Completely ignoring it, it skips directly to St. Gregory’s time spent in the dungeon for being a Christian. In reality, his incarceration came about because of the king’s discovery of the assistant’s true heritage. Which king wouldn’t imprison the son of his father’s assassin?
The story goes on to say that after Drtad is cured of his illness at the hands of Gregory, he becomes a believer of Christianity. As a young king, Drtad fought hard to liberate Armenia and create a quasi independent state. His country’s conversion to the upstart religion was the final break from his Roman and Persian neighbors at a time when religion affiliation was a key tool that set a nation apart.
The process of becoming peace-loving Christians was anything but peaceful or loving. The legend of Drtad omits the key part of the story by ignoring the ‘how’ of the conversion. Although begun peacefully, it soon turned violent when nobles, priests and their followers of the prevailing faiths resisted the efforts of the state. The forced conversion of hundreds of thousands of people had other purposes besides spreading the word of God. Under the guise of religion, Kind Drtad was able to purge his land of political opposition and enemy agents and confiscate the wealth of the existing temples. Everyone was either forced to convert or lose their heads. His right-hand man in this war was none other than St. Gregory, the founder of the Armenian Orthodox church. His greatest supporter and passionate advocate of the effort was Ashkhen, Drtad’s wife who was not Armenian.
In one brief decade, Armenia went from a culturally diverse nation without an official national language to one that espoused uniformity and conformity where the use of Armenian became a requirement and strictly enforced. Survival is a basic human instinct and many did convert rather than lose their heads. Some of the descendants of those who chose to convert almost two millennia ago were, in the early part of the 20th century, forced to make yet another difficult choice: convert or die, but this time to Islam.
Why is identity tied to faith? What about Armenians that are Orthodox but don’t speak a word of the language or know any of the history? What of the Armenian of mixed heritage with the overwhelming love and enthusiasm for the Armenian culture who practices another religion? Do they qualify?
At a recent photo exhibit, Harry, a well known photographer, gave a contextual explanation of one of his photos that looked like nothing more than Muslim village women escaping a flood while holding their children to their breast. The real story is that they were Kurdish women, who after the death of their children and the hardships they endured, were allowed by Turkey to emigrate to Germany. “But the best part,” said Harry, “is that when going through customs and registering their names in their new home country, each one of them gave an Armenian name.” They reclaimed their original identity. “Now, they even have a nice little community with a church.”
Today, in the remote corners of what was once a part of greater Armenia and is now Turkey, there exists a substantial group of Armenians who have almost all converted to Islam. Although they maintain their Armenian identity and their distinctive Armenian dialect, they do not practice the espoused religion of Christianity. Do we consider them to be Armenian?
It is estimated that there are several million “hidden” Armenians in Turkey and the surrounding areas. A little-thought of side effect of the Armenian-Turkish protocols and the resulting improved relations between the two countries may be just the encouragement and motivation these Armenians need to stand up and reclaim their roots and fortify our numbers. Can we deny them their Armenian identity? Can we afford not to?