We know that Armenians lived their religions and sects freely for centuries and the Ottoman Empire was sensitive in making sure of these religious freedoms. Along with this, it is another matter of fact that people could become Muslims with their free will. Islam is a universal religion open to everyone. However, the issue of changing religion or more accurately choosing Islam is handled with the Muslimization of Armenians observed during the implementation of the 1915 Dispatchment and Settlement Law in Armenian studies.
The Dispatchment and Settlement Law which passed on 27 May 1915 required some Armenians to be dispatched from where they are to other regions within Ottoman lands. Naturally nobody wanted to change their places suddenly as a result of these developments. There are information and documents that some Armenians collectively or individually converted to Islam in order to be saved from this dispatchment. Muslim Armenians were excluded from the dispatchment. The state gave them new identity cards and their properties were given back if they had been seized before.
When we look at the writings in Ottoman archives: for example, in the orders sent to Van, Trabzon, Bitlis, Mamuretül –aziz, Diyarbekir, and Sivas provinces and the Canik government on 22 June 1915 it was asked that Armenians converting into Islam individually or collectively were to be retained.
However, when it was understood that such conversions were done not because of the will to be Muslim but to avoid the dispatchment law, Ottoman government decided not to accept the conversions found not sincere and it was announced to the provinces. This decision indeed shows that the Ottoman Empire didn’t have a policy of Muslimizing the Armenians.
In the telegraph sent to provinces and local governments on 1 July 1915, it was stated that Armenians to be dispatched changed religion or sect collectively or individually and they looked for ways to stay in their homelands in this way. It was pointed out that the conversion done in this way was not sincere and it was reminded that Armenians had always changed religion in order to mislead the government when they saw their interests in danger.
The Ottoman Empire had real information and documents that Armenians who converted to Islam and took Muslim names didn’t avoid harmful activities. For this reason, the state asked all authorities to do what was necessary about the dispatchment of Armenians to the places they were supposed to settle in as required by the law even if they converted to Islam after 1 July 1915 (Bakar, 2009, p. 101).
Within this framework, it was, for example, ordered to the civilian authorities of Ankara on 21 July, Konya on 5 August, Eskişehir on 27 August 1915 not to accept the conversions of Armenians. It was also informed that those whose conversions were accepted before would not get privileged treatment and they needed to be dispatched. Another example is the order sent to the Castle of the Sultan government. It was emphasized that it wasn’t appropriate that Armenians collectively changed religion during their dispatchment and those stating that they became Muslims to get married among these would be accepted only on a case-by-case status..
It is seen that the Ottoman Empire started to change its attitude towards conversion demands in the following months after the Dispatchment and Settlement Law. However, new precautions were taken not to allow abuses again and misunderstandings and therefore the claims of “the state is Muslimizing by force.” According to Ottoman laws, the acceptance age of conversion was 15. Primarily, the government made the minimum age of converting 20 during the dispatchment. As per Article 60 of the Population Law, people who demanded conversion had to prove their identity and that they completed the age of 20 before the provincial administration assembly (Beyoğlu, 3).
In a writing sent to the Bolu local government on 24 October 1915, it was allowed for Armenians who wanted to choose Islam to do so starting from the month October. It was informed to provinces and local governments about the conversion of Armenians on 4 November 1915 that these points were paid attention to:
Within this context, the applications of those who wanted to change religion were accepted and their properties were given back to them. The demands from Armenians who were dispatched and wanted to change religion were accepted after they arrived in their settlement places (Bakar, 2009, p. 102).
On the other hand, one of the issues that the Ottoman Empire had to deal with during the process of deportations was orphan children. As it was difficult for children to endure the journey conditions during the dispatchment, they were first tried to be placed in orphanages. When orphanages were insufficient, Armenian children were distributed to Muslim villages for their care and it was tried to guarantee that they weren’t left on the streets. The state appropriated fund of 30 kuruş monthly for each child from the Fund of Immigrants for the care of these children.
The number of orphan Armenian children taken under protection by the Ottoman Empire is 10,314 and some of these were given to Muslim families. However, this situation doesn’t mean that all Armenian children were wanted to be Muslimized. Many Armenian children were given to the orphanages under the control of missionaries and Armenians, like in Damascus. On the other hand, Armenian children in Muslim orphanages were not given religious education. As narrated in many memoirs, Armenian families were able to get their children in the orphanages as long as they proved their identities. Even if the child had changed religion they were being submitted to their families. Some of children distributed to the villages can be thought to have changed religion. We also have to take it into consideration that many of them did so with their free will. However, a large number of children were protected by Muslim families without them changing religion. It is also quite possible for small children to get influenced by the people they live with.
Another important point not to be ignored is that Muslim people had a protective and kind approach toward Armenians despite everything. Orphaned Armenian children and women were taken to take care of by Muslim officers and even military officers. Some officers brought many girls and children from Anatolia and submitted them to the Armenian Patriarchate. These remarks by the Swiss missionary Jakob Künzler living in Urfa are attention grabbing: “If today thousands of children were found they owe this to the protectiveness of Muslims. These stayed in Muslim cities and houses and they are now alive” (Atnur, 2005, p. 67-69).
The situation of Armenian women and girls, on the other hand, was another issue which the State closely followed. The Ottoman Internal Affairs Ministry warned the provinces for them not to be exposed to the abuses of ill-minded people in war conditions. In the writing sent to the Niğde local government on 18 August, it was informed that the marriage of Armenian girls who became Muslim with Muslims without allowing any kind of abuse was appropriate. The conversion of Armenian women whose husbands were alive was not accepted. In November of 1915, it was allowed for Armenian women whose husbands were dead to marry with Muslims if they willed and then to marry Muslim or non-Muslim whoever they wanted.
It is seen that thousands of Armenians chose Islam in order to escape the deportations. It cannot be claimed that the conversion of these were sincere. Ottoman government accepted the demands of conversion in the beginning, but when the conversions increased, they decided that those applying to this method were also deported. It is drawing attention that the women, girls, and children in need of protection were the majority among the Armenians who converted. It is also understood that the marriages of Armenian women with Muslim men also increased. The Ottoman government actually didn’t follow a consistent politics about the conversions during the deportations. Politics changing in accordance with the time and conditions were applied before this phenomenon suddenly appearing.
Before the changing conditions after the armistice, necessary easiness for Armenians who wanted to convert back to their old religions was shown. All demands and complaints of the Allied Forces and the Patriarchate about the conversions were examined in detail and what was necessary was done. The Patriarchate put pressure on Armenian women who were married to Muslims and had children and they were forced to separate from their husbands. Despite various pressures, it is seen that Armenian women who became Muslim stated that they loved their husbands and they didn’t want to convert back to their old religion and they accepted their new situations and statuses. In the meantime, many Armenian orphan children were protected by the state. It should also be stated that many Muslim Turkish children were claimed to be Armenian and were made Christian. We don’t have certain numbers about how many Armenians converted during the First World War years and deportations.
According to the data of the League of Nations, 95,000 Armenians became Muslim during the First World War. Kevork Pamukciyan, who is an Armenian as well, accepts the number of Armenian conversions as 100,000 based on Armenian sources. This number of Pamukciyan parallels the number in the documents of the League of Nations (Beyoğlu, 16-17), and shows how the propagandas during the armistice period distorted this issue. On the other hand, how many of Armenian women and children were made to change sects by the French, British, and American charities during the war years and later is another topic for discussion (Atnur, 2005, p. 292-3).
AKÇAM, Taner, Ermenilerin Zorla Müslümanlaştırılması Sessizlik, İnkar ve Asimilasyon, İstanbul 2014.
ATNUR, İbrahim Ethem, Türkiye’de Ermeni Kadınları ve Çocukları Meselesi (1915-1923), Ankara 2005.
BAKAR, Bülent, Ermeni Tehciri, Ankara 200.9.
BEYOĞLU, Süleyman, “Ermeni Tehciri ve İhtida”, ???
SELÇUK Hava-ALTI Aziz, “Kayseri’de Tehcir, İhtida ve İskan”, Yeni Türkiye Dergisi Ermeni Meselesi Özel Sayısı IV, September-December 2014, Vol. 63, p.2949-2956.