St. Giragor Armenian Church in Diyarbakir, where Turkay converted to Christianity, was destroyed in 2015 during the clashes between the government forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Photo credit: Altan Sancar)

Gafur Turkay, like his six brother and sisters, was raised as a Muslim. But their upbringing belied a past and hidden identity as the grandchildren of a survivor of the violence of 1915 which led to the deportation and death of thousands of Armenians.

In 2010, Gafur decided to reclaim an identity that had been buried for decades; he converted from Islam to Christianity at the St Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey.

In 2010, 54-year-old Gafur Turkay converted from Islam to Christianity at the Armenian Church in Diyarbakir.  (Photo credit: Reha Rühavioğlu)

“I had lived wearing a garment that hadn’t belonged to me, and I took it off,” the 54-year-old said.

Gafur is one of tens of thousands of Islamised Armenians in Turkey, whose stories are little known outside of their families, but who appear to be increasingly interested in rediscovering their pre-1915 identities.

The violent events of 1915 upended the lives of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population. On April 24, intellectuals from the community were detained and, a month later, a deportation order was put into effect that led to the exile and death of as many as 1.5 million Armenians.

Some community members converted to Islam to protect themselves or as part of a process of assimilation that took place after 1915. According to data released in 2015 by the Hrant Dink Foundation, there are more than 200,000 Islamised Armenians in Turkey.

Ankara does not recognize the 1915 events as a genocide and has proscribed referring to them as such. A total of 29 countries, including Germany, Brazil, France, Italy, Canada and Russia, recognize them as a genocide, however, as do 49 out of 50 states in the US. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently condemned a resolution passed by the US House of Representatives recognizing the events of 1915 as a genocide.

Turkay lays down a flower at Düden Waterfall where many Armenians were reportedly killed during the violence of 1915 (Photo credit: Altan Sancar)

In Turkey, most media institutions generally use terms such as “baseless Armenian allegations,” the “so-called Armenian genocide” or “Armenian lies” to refer to the events of 1915. Nationalist and conservative publications frequently use the word “Armenian” to imply that someone is a traitor.

An estimated 120,000 Armenians were deported in 1915 by the Ottoman state from Diyarbakir alone, with Muslim Kurds now the city’s dominant ethnic group.

Gafur’s family is originally from the neighbouring province of Batman, from a town called Sason.

Most of the then-prosperous family were killed in 1915. The only survivors were Gafur’ grandfather, Abraham, along with two of his siblings, Garabet and Tumas.

 Turkay with his father Mehmet (Photo credit: Altan Sancar)

They converted to Islam, changing their names to Ibrahim, Suleyman and Temo. Later, Suleyman and Temo were also murdered because of doubts about their commitment to their new faith.

Ibrahim went on to marry an Armenian woman who had also converted to Islam and their son Mehmet would become Gafur’s father.

Mehmet’s mother often secretly sang Armenian lullabies to her son, reminding him of their identity by showing him a cross that she hid in her bosom.

Mehmet and his children grew up knowing about their Armenian identity, even if they concealed it from the outside world.

When he turned 23, Gafur married an Armenian woman and moved to Diyarbakir. His wife, Kinar, was a member of the St Giragos Armenian Church, and their union revived the dormant Armenian and Christian aspects of his identity.

After Gafur’s baptism, he went on to take on senior roles in Armenian institutions in Diyarbakir, a step towards reclaiming the heritage and religion of his ancestors after decades of hiding his identity.

Gafur said that that many in Diyarbakir hope to eventually be baptized; he knows 30 people of Armenian heritage who have already converted. 

Editor of the Armenian daily Agos, Pakrat Estukyan, explained that “this was a trend that started nearly two decades ago, when the political atmosphere in Turkey relaxed a little and Islamized Armenians were finally allowed to acknowledge their true identity and get baptized if they wanted to”. 

Estukyan added that Armenians who want to convert to Christianity must apply to the Armenian Patriarchate in Turkey first and only after a six-month period of preparations they can be officially baptised.

One of Gafur’s brothers also converted to Christianity. His father Mehmet did not oppose their decisions, but said it was too late for him to reprise a lost identity.

St. Giragor Armenian Church before it was destroyed (Photo credit: Altan Sancar)

“I’m Armenian, but I was Islamised,” he said. “I have always gone to the mosque, and I didn’t have the chance of getting acquainted with the church.” 

“I don’t want to change after such a long time – what use would it be?”, he added.

Ersen Zengin, another Islamized Armenian living in Diyarbakır, also doesn’t consider being baptized. Zengin, who identifies himself as a leftist, says he doesn’t have to be a Christian to claim his Armenian identity.

“One’s ethnic affiliation should not be mixed with their religion. Your ethnicity is something that you are born with, but religion is something you acquire later in life”, he said. “I don’t think that, in order to be an Armenian, one has to be a Christian, too.”