Raffi Bedrosyan: “I was excited at showing Armenia to the hidden Armenians, and they were excited about seeing Armenia…”

Recently, 50 hidden Armenians from Diyarbakir (Tigranakert) participated in “Ari Tun” program. The initiator was Canadian Armenian pianist, engineer-constructor Raffi Bedrosyan, who together with his co-thinkers carried out the renovation works of St. Kirakos Church in Diyarbakir.  Interview of “Hayern Aysor” with Raffi Bedrosyan is about this topic.

- Renovation of St. Kirakos Church in Diyarbakir had several reasons:

Firstly, to prove the Turks and the Kurds that, prior to 1915, Armenians used to live there and they had a very large Armenian community, as they would always deny the fact. Besides, by reconstructing a church for three thousand people, we pursue the goal to attract their attention, so that those that are unaware of the Armenian Genocide, would be able to confront the history of their past.

Secondly, St. Kirakos Church became a peculiar monument for those Armenians of Diaspora and Armenia, who visit Turkey, the Western Armenia.

Thirdly, the biggest and the most important goal is that St. Kirakos Church should be a magnet attracting the hidden Armenians living in Diyarbakir. And this became a reality much earlier thanprojected by us. Many Armenians that were Islamized after 1915 (forced or as orphans being taken by the Turks and the Kurds), today begin to realize that there are Armenian roots in their families, restore their identity and return to their roots. For the time being, several persons have been baptized at St. Kirakos Church. And the majority discloses their Armenian roots, in the meantime, continuing toprofess Islam.

This is a new reality, which we should recognize, and we should perceive that, along with the Armenians from Armenia, Artsakh and Diaspora, there are also Islamized hidden Armenians making up a quite big number in Turkey. We should encourage them, so that they would feel that they are Armenians and could be Armenians.

Therefore, we organized, together with the Municipality, Armenian language classes in Diyarbakir. We took the graduates of these classes to Armenia as a prize for completion of the course. We came to Armenia with pleasure and anxiety. I was excited at showing Armenia to the hidden Armenians, and they were excited about seeing Armenia.

We want to again hire a teacher, who will continue teaching the Armenian language. In Armenia, we visited AGBU; we were familiarized with the terms and conditions of the Virtual University.  Many of them, especially the youth, said that they could learn the Armenian language also via this channel. We should work hard, so that the Armenian language could develop in Diyarbakir, and later on – in other locations as well.

- Mr. Raffi, how many hidden Armenians have participated in “Ari Tun” program?

- Our group was comprised of 50 persons, ranging in age from 18 to 83, and representing all socio-economic and education levels; among them were lawyers, doctors, traders, teachers, farmers, craftsmen, students, etc. All of them are Armenians wishing to be Armenians and speak the Armenian language. This program should have been very important for them.

- You are in touch with the hidden Armenians. What interesting stories can you recall?

- There are many such stories; the story of each hidden Armenia can become a material for one book. Part of them knew about their Armenian identity from their parents, at the same time being strictly warned not to talk about it outside.

Part of them got to know about the location of Yerevan and Armenia, as they lived among the Kurds. For many years, the Turkish government had forced the Kurds not to use the word “Kurd” and not to speak Kurdish. And these people would contact the Kurds only via Yerevan radio, thus,having contacts with Armenia.

Part of them would learn about their Armenian identity only in the middle of their life, when their parents had confessed,before they died, that they represent the Armenian nationality. Do you know what it means? Being shocked and surprised, these 40-year old people realize that they are not any more Kurds or Turks, but are Armenians.

Unfortunately, in Turkey the word “Armenia” is used as a curse, and this is the case today. They tell that when boys would quarrel, the Kurdish and Turkish boys, knowing that their peers were hidden Armenians, would name them Armenians. The latter, without knowing about their origin, would perceive this as a curse, and would cry and go home, telling that they were cursed being named as Armenians. And only then, their parents would confess that this was not a curse, but the reality.

- Mr. Raffi, in course of the visit to Armenia, two Armenians from Diyarbakir were baptized at St. Astvatsatsin Church in Etchmiadzin. I wonder how it occurred to them to do that.

-Several members of the group were baptized at St. Kirakos Church, the rest were either Islamic Armenians or atheists. When we came to Armenia, no one had an intention of being baptized. But Sami Chelik, who is a teacher at a Turkish government school, said that he wanted to make his dream cometrue and to become a Christian Armenian. We agreed that the baptism would be conducted in Etchmiadzin, as we were going to visit Etchmiadzin in scope of “Ari Tun” program. As I told, that man was a teacher, and there was a risk that he might lose his job. But he was determined and wanted to be baptized in Armenia.

Rahim Karakash was hesitant whether to be baptized or not. Her situation was more complex; she is married to a devoutly Muslim Kurd, who had made it a condition that she would never convert. But Rahime’s father, before passing away, had encouraged her to become Christian, as they are Armenians. And she felt that she had an obligation to her late father. So she wasbetween her father and her husband. She had to make a hard choice. The day, when we went to Sardarapat, on the way back she said that she wanted to be baptized. So when we arrived to Etchmiadzin, instead of one, two participants were baptized.

-  I wonder, what changes will happen in their life, when they return back?

- When they return, they will be a bit braver and the Armenianness in them will be more powerful. As compared to the past, today the situation is better in Turkey and they feel more open. At the same time, a new episode, a shock might happen there any time.

One thing I may say for sure: they are very happy for being Armenians; they change their names; they are baptized and want to learn Armenian in a short period of time. And their children – the next generation, will be more predetermined as Armenians.

- Isn’t it dangerous today to confront own identity in Turkey?

- We do not intervene in such issues. It is not in our competence to tell them what to do. And if they express willingness to return to their origins, we should make efforts to help them. However, we cannot impose pressure and take any step without their consent. I hope that the conditions will improve.

- Is the number of the hidden Armenians living in Diyarbakir known?

- We cannot state precise figures; but they say that more than 100 000 hidden Armenians having Armenian roots and blood, live in Diyarbakir.

- Mr. Raffi, how many years have you been dealing withthese matters? And what has been changed in your life, when you began to communicatewith the Islamized Armenians?

- After Hrant Dink’s death, I began to think about this matter. I began to work with a friend living in Turkey. The more I communicate with the hidden Armenians, the bigger becomes the problem, and in the meantime – the solution. Perhaps this takes a lot of time, but this is my duty, which I do with great pleasure.

- You are a pianist. How do you combine these two activities?

- I try to combine both. After reconstruction of St. Kirakos Church, I gave my first concert in the church, but playing fragments of theArmenian music that was received very well. For the first time after 1915, Armenian music would sound at St. Kirakos Church. This concert was only the beginning; we want to implement other programs as well, particularly,to establish a cultural center, so that the cultural life could develop in Diyarbakir.

- How often do you visit Diyarbakir?

- One or two times per year. Hidden Armenians live also in Istanbul. The life is a bit easier there with less pressure, but the “core” should be sought in the Western Armenian, and the contact should be maintainedwith those living in Diyarbakir, Dersim and Van.

- Mr. Raffi, I know that you had climbed Mount Ararat.

- It was one of my biggest dreams, which came true in August last year. With my son Taron, we climbed Mount Ararat, together with Americans and the Dutch. The first day, when we spent the night on the mountain, I heard an Armenian song from the tent next to ours – “tableful, and in front Ararat…”; we went and found out that they were Armenians from Armenia, who also had decided to climb the mountain.  We decided to leave our group and to join them. When we climbed to the summit of Ararat, the six of us -theArmenians, were all together, and it was abreathtaking moment, which I will never forget.

-  What has been changed in your life?

- Now I have stronger will to continue such activities.

- What plans do you have in the near future? I know that you have some projects connected with Hamshen Armenians.

-  Yes, I would like to be able to implement the same circle – the program with the Hamshen Armenians, as we did with the Diyarbakir Armenians. This will be a more complex and challenging program, as among the Hamshen Armenians, there are not many people who would accept their Armenian identity, as they had been Islamized much earlier – about two centuries ago.  However, among the Hamshen Armenians there are people, who know that the language they are speaking is one form of the Armenian language, rather than a dialect of Turkish language, as they had been told.  After realizing this, many things couldbe changed in their life. Many of them have started to deal with this issue with the help specialists that study this issue; they begin to show interest, go deep into the issue and understand that they have Armenian roots.

- How was your cooperation with the Ministry of Diaspora established?

- It wouldn’t be possible to implement such programs without the assistance of the Ministry of Diaspora. And for that, we are grateful very much to the whole stuff of the Ministry of Diaspora, especially the Minister Hranush Hakobyan and Mr. Firdus Zakaryan (Chief of Staff of the Ministry of Diaspora), who were very much supportive, encouraging and jointly we were able to implement all that.

I hope that this is only the beginning and that in the near future, we will be able to implement many programs. We already have a good experience and the next ones will be done more easily.

Interviewed by LusineAbrahamyan