Camp Armen: an official disgrace

Over the past few weeks, Turkey has been faced with another shame created by its officialdom. The demolition of Camp Armen in Istanbul’s Tuzla district on May 6 has once again brought to mind how the Armenians of Turkey suffered greatly through the systematic discrimination against non-Muslims.

Built as the orphanage of the Gedikpaia Armenian Protestant Church Foundation in 1963, Camp Armen has a powerful symbolic meaning. When Anatolia was left devoid of Armenian schools after 1915, orphaned and impoverished Armenian children who made their way to Istanbul found a home and were educated at the camp that was called the “Youth Home of Istanbul.”

Once home to around 1,500 children, who built most of the facilities they used, Camp Armen was confiscated by the government in the 1980s and left in a state of decay. Now it faces demolition in order to make way for new luxury housing. Armenians, including former residents of the orphanage, along with their Turkish friends, have risen in protest.

Usurpation of minority groups’ property, including the camp in Tuzla, is a continuation of the transfer of non-Muslim property/wealth to Muslims, a policy unchanged from Ottoman times to the republic.

The government demanded a law in 1936 which is currently known as the 1936 Declaration to make the property acquisitions of Christian churches and endowments possible. Using this law, the government confiscated anything acquired after that date, starting in 1970. Property endowed by deceased members of non-Muslim communities to their churches, synagogues and charitable organizations went to the state, later to be sold to third parties. This was a gross violation of human and property rights. Nevertheless, both the administration and the judiciary acted in partnership to perpetuate the injustice.

In 1971, 1974 and finally 1975, the Supreme Court of Appeals issued three judicial decisions. It decreed that all properties acquired by minority religious foundations had no legal validity and were to be returned to the national Treasury. In the suffocating atmosphere of the 1980 coup d’eacutetat, the orphanage’s founder and supervisor, clergyman Hrant Guzelyan, was accused of raising militant Armenians and was tortured into confessing his supposed crime. After a series of futile legal battles, the foundation lost the site of the orphanage, which has since been sold several times.

During the partial demolition of the camp earlier this month, a group of Armenians from Turkey, including some of the former students of the Youth Home of Istanbul who grew up in Camp Armen, rushed to the site and are presently keeping guard day and night. In the meantime, many Armenian organizations at home and abroad are appealing to the government to halt further demolition of the camp and return the site to its rightful owner. The present owner seems to be willing to return it to the church provided that he receives the market value. It is the moral and material debt of the government to pay this sum to the present, illegitimate owner.

If this correction is not made in due time, as common sense dictates, not only will the remaining handful Armenians of Turkey be hurt again, but Armenians elsewhere will be convinced and global public opinion will maintain that there is systematic discrimination and ill will toward Armenians in Turkey. At a time when Turkey is being pressured to acknowledge the fate of the Armenians a hundred years ago, a new example to reinforce old accusations is both wrong and unintelligent. A government that claims to be “neo-Ottoman” has a golden chance to mend the wrongdoings of the imperial times it praises as just and benevolent.