There are 60,000 to 70,000 Armenians in Istanbul

With news of growing rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey, one community that has been watching this process with a mixture of both hope and trepidation is the Armenian community of Istanbul.

Numbering between 60,000 to 70,000, these are the last descendants of a community that once numbered millions throughout the territory of Turkey's predecessor, the Ottoman Empire.

Nowadays, they are the largest of Turkey's officially-recognised minority groups, with a history in the city that stretches back to medieval times.

Istanbul also has its own Armenian Patriarchate, the highest body of the local Armenian Orthodox Church. There are some 33 Armenian churches in the city, 15 Armenian schools and two Armenian hospitals.

Memories of 1915

Relations between Istanbul's Turkish Armenians and their Turkish neighbours are also generally good, on a personal level.

The mood is positive at Istanbul's Church of the
Virgin Mary [Jonathan Gorvett]
"I have many Turkish friends and our relations are very good," says Melisa Buman, who is studying to be an English teacher. "We don't really have any problems between us."

But Turkey and Armenia certainly do have problems between them.

"The two big issues are 1915 and Nagorno Karabakh," says Robert Haddeler, the editor of one of Istanbul's three Armenian newspapers, Marmara, and a renowned poet. "These are enough alone for us to see the future as very unclear."

The year 1915 is scorched in the memories of most Armenians as the year the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire was largely destroyed. This was done mostly by Turkish and Kurdish irregulars, but also, many accounts suggest, with the connivance of the Ottoman authorities.

This act has been called a 'genocide' by most Armenians - and by many international historians.

Turkey, however, officially denies that a genocide took place and instead says many Turks and Armenians were killed at the time, as part of the tragic events of the First World War.

Welcomed and feared

This dispute has soured relations ever since. Yet a more recent conflict, that between neighbouring Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Caucasian territory of Nagorno Karabakh, has also badly damaged relations.

Turkey backed Azerbaijan in that 1994 conflict and instituted a land blockade of Armenia that has been going on ever since.

Ankara also broke off diplomatic relations with Armenia at that time. Yet earlier this month, Turkey and Armenia signed two protocols re-establishing formal links and promising to reopen the border - if both country's parliaments agree.

This rapprochement has been both welcomed and feared by the Turkish Armenian community.

"Opening the borders and beginning diplomatic relations have been dreams for the Armenians who live Turkey for many years," says Rober Koptas, of the Armenian newspaper Agos.

"If people from Turkey go to Armenia and make contact with Armenians, prejudices against Armenians can come to an end here too, we hope."

But, Haddeler says: "We fear that in both countries, but especially in Turkey, the nationalists are not prepared to accept the 'other side' as friends. We are fairly sure these people are not happy with rapprochement and we fear they might act to sabotage it. This would have a highly negative impact on our lives here in Turkey."

Such fears come from a long history of violence. Most recently, in January 2007, Hrant Dink, the editor of Agos, was assassinated by a Turkish ultra-nationalist just yards from his office.

Dink had been the most prominent and outspoken member of Turkey's Armenian community.

"The Turkish authorities have done nothing to prevent such attacks in the future," says Koptas.

There is also a widespread belief among Turkish Armenians and indeed many Turks that although the assassin, Ogun Samast, was swiftly arrested, the assassination has still not been properly investigated.

Revived community

Yet there are also some positive signs of changing times for Turkey's Armenians on the streets of Istanbul.

Abandoned Armenian buildings are now being restored [Jonathan Gorvett]
In the run down district of Kumkapi, where many of the city's poorer Armenians live and the Armenian Patriarchate is located, last Sunday's service at the Church of the Virgin Mary was a busy affair.

"We are very hopeful about the rapprochement," said one parishioner, Arevig Hablan. "It makes things more normal between us all."

One physical sign of this is the already growing number of Armenians from Armenia visiting, living and working in Istanbul, some of whom were also at Sunday's service. Many of these work illegally, but the government largely turns a blind eye to this.

Meanwhile, around the corner, the ramshackle façade of a once proud Armenian building, abandoned many years ago, is now likely to be refurbished by a Turkish Armenian foundation. This is thanks to a major change in the law brought in by the current government.

"This is very important," says Haddeler. "The government passed a new law on foundations which returned a lot of property to us which had previously been confiscated. The law also enables our foundations to make a profit, so we can make money for the first time to invest in our schools, hospitals and churches."

Changing mood

Many Turkish Armenians are positive about the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, despite most Armenians' Christian beliefs and the AKP's Islamist roots.

"The AKP is more open to hear the demands of minority groups than the 'secular' parties," says Koptas. "It is very ironic, but this complexity has been the essence of Turkish politics in the past few years."

"For the first time, we have felt that the mood in government has changed," says Haddeler. "Now we are hoping that this change of mood will take place amongst the population at large."

Without this, the fear is that Turkey's Armenian rapprochement may be too fragile to last - and that this ancient community in Istanbul may be amongst the first to suffer from any breakdown.

Source: Al Jazeera