The final blow in the long and tragic process of Islamization and Turkification of the Ottoman Greek population was delivered during the 1913-1923 Greek Genocide, in which many Greeks — especially women and children — were forced to convert to Islam. Those who refused were killed or exiled. Pictured: A march in Thessaloniki, Greece on May 19, 2019 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the massacre of some 353,000 ethnic Pontian Greeks by Ottoman forces in Turkey. (Photo by Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP via Getty Images)
A recent statement by a Turkish mayor belonging to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was particularly noteworthy in the wake of the US Senate’s December 12 resolution to “commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance.”
Mayor Hayrettin Güngör of Kahramanmaraş was caught on camera telling a woman from Trabzon, “We made you Muslim.”
He seems to have been referring to the fact that Trabzon, as other provinces in the Black Sea region, used to be a Greek Orthodox Christian city, which is now Muslim — in spite of the thousands of people in the area who still speak the Pontic Greek dialect.
After an angry public response to the statement, Güngör phoned the mayor of Trabzon to apologize. As offensive as his claim may have been, however, he was actually revealing a tragic truth: that many Turkish citizens are descendants of forcibly Islamized Christians.
Prior to the Turkish invasion of Asia Minor in the 11th century — and the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) to Ottoman Turks in the 15th century — the lands that comprise contemporary Turkey were part of the Greek-speaking Christian Byzantine Empire.
When the Ottoman Turks captured the Greek Empire of Trebizond (today’s Trabzon) in 1461, there were virtually no Muslims in the region. In the decades and centuries following the Ottoman conquest, many Christians converted to Islam. The local Muslim derebeys (valley lords) and the Ottoman state and army, via periodic acts of violence, special taxation (jizya), social segregation, systematic mistreatment and humiliation inexorably pushed the Christian population to Islamization for the sake of survival.
The Asia Minor and Pontos Hellenic Research Center reports:
“The Turkish persecution of Pontian Greeks and other Christian peoples began after the fall of Trabzon, starting slowly at first and gradually becoming more widespread and terrifying. Massacres and deportations became more frequent and intense. Many Christians reluctantly converted to Islam to avoid oppression and discrimination and merely to survive. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, approximately 250,000 Pontian Greeks were forced to convert to Islam and speak Turkish. Almost 250,000 migrated to areas of the Caucasus and the northern shores of the Black Sea that Russia controlled.”
The conquests by Turks resulted in the violent and destructive Islamization of the Byzantine civilization. Historian Professor Speros Vryonis Jr writes:
“The [Turkish] conquests in Anatolia were prolonged, repeated (lasting from the 11th-15th centuries), quite destructive and disruptive of life and property.
“The conquest of Asia Minor virtually destroyed the Anatolian Church. The ecclesiastical administrative documents reveal an almost complete confiscation of church property, income, buildings, and the imposition of heavy taxes by the Turks.”
In his book, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century, Professor Vryonis presents the names of Anatolian towns and villages ravaged during the Turkish jihad conquests of Asia Minor, from the eleventh through fifteenth centuries. The list includes the names of places across Asia Minor whose inhabitants were “pillaged”, “sacked or destroyed”, “enslaved”, “captured”, “massacred”, “besieged” or put to “flight.”
The Ottoman Empire lasted for some 600 years — from 1299 to 1923 — and included parts of Asia, Europe and Africa. During this period, the Turks engaged in practices such as: the ghulam system, in which non-Muslims were enslaved, converted and trained to become warriors and statesmen; the devshirme system, the forced recruitment of Christian boys taken from their families, converted to Islam and enslaved for service to the sultan in his palace and to join his janissaries (“new corps”); compulsory and voluntary Islamization — the latter resulting from social, religious and economic pressure; and the sexual slavery of women and young boys, deportation and massacre.
One of the reasons for the decline of Christianity in Asia Minor following the Turkish Muslim conquests was, according to Professor Vryonis, the destruction of the Greek Orthodox Church “as an effective social, economic and religious institution.” The systematic persecution of Greek clergy by the Ottoman Turks continued for centuries.
The final blow in the long and tragic process of Islamization and Turkification of the Ottoman Greek population was delivered during the 1913-1923 Greek Genocide, in which many Greeks — especially women and children — were forced to convert to Islam. Those who refused were killed or exiled.
And today, less than half a percent of Turkey’s population is Christian. One result of the persecution that took place is that the number of Islamized Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians is unknown. According to Raffi Bedrosyan, author of the 2018 book, Trauma and Resilience: Armenians in Turkey – Hidden, Not Hidden and No Longer Hidden:
“Hidden Armenians are the present generation descendants of Armenian orphans left behind in Turkey after the 1915 Armenian Genocide. These orphans, the living victims of the Genocide, were forcibly assimilated, Islamized, Turkified and Kurdified in state orphanages, military schools, Turkish and Kurdish homes. In recent years, it has become apparent that they did not forget their Armenian roots and secretly passed them on to the next generations.
“Numbers of hidden Armenians aware of their Armenian roots are unknown. Numbers of hidden Armenians aware of their Armenian roots and willing to return to Armenian roots are also unknown. But independent research and studies indicate that Armenian orphans left behind in Turkey and Armenians in certain regions allowed to convert to Islam in order to avoid massacres and deportation during the 1915 Armenian Genocide, add up to about 300,000. Since the population of Turkey increased seven times since 1915, the descendants of these forcibly Islamized hidden Armenians would number more than 2 million. Although there are no reliable figures about Armenian conversions to Islam during the 1894-96 massacres, the numbers are even larger than in 1915. The Hamshen Armenians, who were converted to Islam earlier in the 16th century but still speak a dialect of Armenian, number more than 200,000. It is difficult to arrive at numbers with certainty, but it can be stated that potentially there exists a genetically Armenian population in Turkey which may even exceed the current population of the Republic of Armenia, although these people are at present Islamized Turks or Kurds…
“Once the hidden Armenians come out and openly declare their Armenian identity, they face many difficulties, dangers and threats in Turkey, surrounded by a hostile state, neighbors, employers and sometimes even their own families who wish to remain Islam Turks or Kurds.”
The same applies to Turkey’s Islamized Assyrians. As Sabri Atman, president of the Assyrian Genocide Research Center, wrote in 2016:
“‘Crypto-Assyrian’ is a term to describe ethnic Assyrians who feel obliged to hide their Assyrian identity… These people are the descendants of Assyrians in Ottoman Turkey. Their parents were killed and many orphans were taken as slaves and worked for the Kurdish aghas. Assyrian women were taken into harems by Muslim husbands and were converted to Islam, forced into slavery, and raised as Turks or Kurds. Orphans, girls, and women were forcefully taken from their parents and were sold on the markets, just like Yezidi women and girls in Iraq are today in the hands of ISIS….
“The Assyrians, who have established the Diyarbakir Assyrian Association, are having difficulties with some of their Muslim neighbors and relatives for asking about their ethnic roots. They number in the thousands. They are proud of their Assyrian identity and do not want to be denied by their ancestry as they seek to understand what they have endured and continue to endure.”
In other words, when Mayor Güngör proudly told the Muslim woman from Trabzon, “We made you Muslim,” he was admitting — unwittingly — to his country’s history of Islamization, which, in many instances, included persecution, forced conversion and mass murder of non-Muslims. Ironically, even the mayor’s own ancestors may have been Christian or Jewish converts to Islam.
The Turkish people need to learn the truth about the history of both the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Only the truth can liberate the people of Turkey from the past that haunts them to this day.
Dr. Vasileios Meichanetsidis is an Athens-based historian, genocide scholar and editor of the 2011 book “The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks.”
 On the process of the Islamization of Asia Minor see Vryonis, Speros, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh Through the Fifteenth Century, University of California Press, Los Angeles 1971; and Heath W. Lowry, The Islamization and Turkification of the City of Trabzon (Trebizond) 1461-1583, Istanbul 2009, p. 146.
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