Turkey Armenians wary one year after editor's death

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - One year after Turkish-Armenian writer Hrant Dink was shot dead, Turkey’s Armenian community is torn between hoping for better days in the EU candidate nation and moving abroad out of frustration and fear of more attacks.

One of the daughters of Turkish-Armenian editor Hrant Dink carries her father's picture in front of a vehicle carrying Dink's coffin during his funeral procession in Istanbul January 23, 2007. One year after Dink was shot dead, Turkey's Armenian community is torn between hoping for better days in the EU candidate nation and moving abroad out of frustration and fear of more attacks. REUTERS/Stringer

Dink’s murder by an ultra-nationalist gunman outside his Istanbul office on January 19, 2007 stunned Turkey, and his funeral turned into a mass protest against nationalist violence.

But the mood among Istanbul’s ethnic Armenians remains jittery as the grim anniversary looms, despite the pledges of solidarity and government promises to fight intolerance.

“Most (Armenians) hesitate to go out and make themselves known ... This is not a time of great hope, it is still a time of danger,” said Etyen Mahcupyan, Dink’s successor as editor of Agos, a small Turkish and Armenian-language weekly based in Istanbul.

Optimists see violence against Christians as the last gasp of a nationalism that feels threatened by globalization, Turkey’s rising prosperity and closer ties with Europe.

Before his murder, Dink had received numerous death threats for articles urging Turkey to accept responsibility for its part in the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks and Kurds in 1915.

His writings also brought him a suspended 6-month jail sentence under a law that makes it a crime to insult Turkish identity. Ankara has failed to amend or scrap the law, condemned by the European Union as a major obstacle to free speech.

Not far from the Agos office, Armenians congregate at a small tea house in a back alley of what was once one of the city’s major Armenian quarters. Turkey now has about 60,000 ethnic Armenians, far fewer than in Ottoman times.

The owner of the tea house, who declined to give his name, said he was horrified to learn Dink’s killer was an unemployed 17-year-old who wanted to become a nationalist hero. The youth and his accomplices are now on trial.

“This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I have seen the darkest days of this country -- military coups, economic crises and earthquakes. Not once did I think about leaving. But this is too much. I would emigrate if I could,” he said.


Dink’s murder was one in a series of violent attacks on Turkey’s small Christian population, which also includes Roman Catholics, Protestants and Greek Orthodox.

Last April three Christians -- two Turks and a German -- had their throats slit at a Bible publishing house in the eastern town of Malatya. Several clergymen have been attacked in recent months, most recently an Italian priest in his church in Izmir.

For Turkish ultra-nationalists, Christians are sometimes seen as a threat to national security and unity, acting as agents of European powers which want to subvert Turkey’s national sovereignty and religious values.

The suspected involvement of members of the security forces in Dink’s murder also highlighted the enduring role of Turkey’s shadowy “deep state”, code for hardline nationalists in the state apparatus ready to subvert the law for political ends.

The tea house owner said the nationalist view of Christians as potential enemies had given rise to the violence against religious targets that was now stifling his community.

“I can’t breathe in this country, everyone treats you like the enemy,” he said.

For optimists, however, the attacks of 2007 were the death throes of a nationalism that is being rendered increasingly obsolete by globalization, Turkey’s rising prosperity and the government’s drive to join the European Union.

“What we see on the surface is nationalist acts, but the reason we have those is because nationalism is weakening in Turkey in terms of controlling the politics, and that’s why 2007 was crucial,” said Agos editor Mahcupyan.

Sociologists say wrenching social, economic and demographic changes have boosted the appeal of simplistic nationalist slogans among a large, poorly educated segment of Turkish youth desperately seeking an identity.

“Turkey is experiencing a period of intense change,” said Fuat Keyman, a professor at Koc University in Istanbul.

“Kurdish separatists pose a threat to the country’s southeast and the European Union is putting pressure on the very idea of Turkishness. These nationalist attacks are a knee-jerk reaction,” he said.

For Armenians, the key question is whether the ruling centre-right AK Party can make good on its promises of reforms in areas such as minority rights and freedom of expression, said Mahcupyan.

“It is easy to be skeptical, but we have put our hopes in the AK Party and we are waiting to see what the intention of the government is, whether they are willing to change,” he said.

Editing by Gareth Jones and Tim Pearce