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Misunderstanding the Armenian Martyrs

Bishop Maloyan’s refusal to become a Muslim made him a traitor to the new Turkish state, just as so many early Church martyrs were seen as dangers to the Roman Empire for their failure to conform to the pagan religion of the state.

Blessed Seliger Ignatius Maloyan (Bistum Mardin/Wikipedia); right: The corpses of Armenians beside a road in 1915 (Wikipedia)

It’s a safe bet that the martyrdom of Blessed Ignazio Maloyan will not be publicly remembered in Turkey this year. After all, on April 24, 2021, when President Joe Biden dared to use the word “genocide”—a word that US presidents have carefully avoided using for over a century—to describe the deaths that occurred in Turkey in 1915, the Turkish government angrily rejected the very idea that a genocide had occurred.

But the evidence is easy to find. Almost two million men, women, and children were killed in Turkey in just the spring and summer of 1915. A dictionary definition of genocide is “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group,” and that is clearly what was intended by Turkish leaders when they ordered the murder of Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians in that fateful year. How could anyone refuse to acknowledge the photographic and physical evidence of two million dead men, women, and children?

Perhaps the problem is not that Turkish leaders do not understand certain words (such as “genocide”) the same way we do, but the fact that they see the same events in a different way. To better understand those differences, we can examine a different genocide, one that occurred in the early fourth century in the Roman Empire.

Fourth-century Rome and the Christians

In general, the emperors of Rome during the first to fourth centuries did not persecute Christians because they were easily offended by other religions. Part of the success of the Roman Empire lay in its relative tolerance of the customs of the people that it conquered; after all, Romans wanted their massive empire to run smoothly, for the sake of peace and a healthy economy.

The Roman emperor Diocletian did not begin his reign during the late third century by persecuting Christians. The empire was too close to invasion and economic collapse for him to focus on anything else. But Diocletian’s military successes, administrative reorganizations, and tax reforms resulted in many improvements over the years. However, the empire was still unstable in the early fourth century, and for multiple reasons he became convinced that he needed to purify his court—and then the empire itself—of any group that opposed the longstanding religious traditions of Rome. Christians were the primacy focus of his purging.

In Diocletian’s mind, the good of the empire required the favor of the gods, and Christians—particularly Christian soldiers in his army—were harming the entire empire by not offering sacrifices to those gods. Didn’t they realize how important this was to protect the stability of the empire? That it would only cost them a little time, money, and incense?

From 303 to 312, Diocletian unleashed one of the worst persecutions that the Church has ever known. The well-known saints Agnes, Benignus, Christina, Chrysogonus, Cosmas and Damian, Dorothy, Irenaeus, Januarius, Lucy, Marcellinus and Peter, and Sebastian—and many more—were all brutally killed during these bloody years.

Twentieth-century Turkey and the Christians

In the early twentieth century, many Turkish leaders recognized that the autocratic monarchy of the Ottoman Empire was a thing of the past. They wanted to replace it with a constitutional, democratic government, just like those of many other successful nations, a goal with which we Americans can sympathize.

However, the Turkish leaders who led this movement—commonly called the Young Turks—did not sound like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Instead, these Turkish leaders were secular intellectuals and revolutionaries who favored violence over reasoned arguments. Also, as Muslims, they saw the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians living in Turkey as threats to the country’s safety from foreign powers, as “fifth columnists” who would betray Turkey if given a chance. So they gave the Christians no chance.

They deported close to two million of these Christians into remote areas over several months. Many died of disease, hunger, and exposure. Others died of torture, rape, and outright murder.

The Bishop and his flock

Blessed Ignazio Maloyan was born in Turkey, but he was a priest of the Armenian Catholic Church and later archbishop of Mardin, Turkey. On June 3, 1915, he was arrested, and more than eight hundred Catholics had been arrested by the following day. While in court, the judge told Bishop Maloyan to convert to Islam. When the bishop refused, he was returned to jail and tortured mercilessly.

Soon afterward, more than four hundred Armenian Christians were gathered together and led by soldiers into the desert. The bishop, who was among them, encouraged his people and celebrated his final Mass with them using scraps of bread. On June 10, 1915, soldiers slaughtered these Christians in front of him.

A leader of the soldiers approached Bishop Maloyan again and insisted that he convert to Islam. When he refused, he was shot. The reports of eyewitnesses who saw Bishop Maloyan’s steadfastness in court, his prayers while being tortured, and even his prayers for God’s mercy after he had been shot were cited during his beatification process.

Bishop Maloyan’s refusal to become a Muslim made him a traitor to the new Turkish state, just as so many early Church martyrs were seen as dangers to the Roman Empire for their failure to conform to the pagan religion of the state. But unlike the Christians killed by Al Qaeda and ISIS, neither group was executed primarily out of religious fundamentalism.

For both the ancient Roman authorities and the followers of the Young Turks Movement, Christians needed to be eliminated because they were a danger to the almighty state. Didn’t those foolish Christians realize that the god or God or gods you worshiped were less important than ensuring the success of the state? That the loss of hundreds or thousands or even millions of lives is less important than achieving the utopian dreams of the ruling party?

On June 11, we can honor the holiness of Blessed Ignazio, who died with his people and for his God. We can mourn the deaths of millions of unknown Christians whose only crime was their faith. And we can remember that love for one’s country is a virtue—which comes after love for the God who died for us all.


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About Dawn Beutner 10 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

10 Comments

  1. Excellent! It’s about time that particular horror was better known. The idea of the State ruling the consciences of the people is really what the Left in this country is trying to do now. I hope and pray we Christians here and in the West won’t find ourselves in similar straits. But it’s certainly not the State alone that inspires the current Young Turks, but religious fanaticism and hate.

    • Make no mistake. The Right is doing the same. American politics, indeed politics everywhere, is totally corrupt. There is only one way. It’s neither Right nor Left, Democrat or Republican. It’s the Gospel. It’s Jesus Christ our King.

      • Father, the Right is not in support of communism (aka progressivism, a word of obfuscation), abortion, infanticide, Christian persecution, Critical Race Theory (dividing race by color aka segregation), politicizing science i.e. covid 19 and censoring doctors and proven therapies. The right didn’t return covid+ elderly back into nursing homes in order to sooth their self pride and conceit.

      • Father,

        The Left want abortion on demand, transgenderism , the elimination of prayer in schools, promotion of Islam and on and on. Please wake up.

  2. If we are facing this possibility in the United States as the “opposition” to all moral values continues to march across our country, let me be one who refuses to deny my faith in the Triune God and accepts death at the hands of those who work for a society that obliterates any religious doctrines. Please, God, let the dogma live loudly in me.

  3. Demonic wisdom is James’ interpretation of their ideas. James 3:13-18 (ESV) Wisdom from Above
    13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

  4. I discovered the Armenian genocide @ 20 years ago. My family is 1/3 Greek and Turkey’s history of occupation and persecution in Greece is legendary at least among Greeks themselves. Armenia was a Christian county, so too Greece. In the end the history here is Christ vs Islam. But the politics revealed in this article was an eye opener. I have long thought that history repeats itself but unfolds in different ways than it has in the past. Critical Race theory returns us to racism by skin color. It reinstates segregation, sows hate and dissolves judging by content of character. Pay attention in particular to paragraph #6 and the 2nd to the last paragraph. Isn’t this exactly what is unfolding in the Biden/Pelosi present purging of our military? Think about it. Anyone not conforming to their socialist/communist statist policies are being thrown out. Everything said in those two paragraphs about Armenia and Rome rings true today. If you doubt that it’s anyone who believes in the Constitution/God that is being purged, then look it up! BTW the purging started back in 2008 under Obama. . Use DuckDuckGo-it doesn’t censor.

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