President Joe Biden made history this past weekend when he became the first sitting US president to recognize the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenian Christians by the Ottoman Empire—present-day Turkey—in the early twentieth century as a genocide.
It’s taken this long for the United States to officially describe horrific slaughter with accurate terminology because Turkey has long been seen as an important ally in the Middle East, and they are predictably hesitant to accept that classification. That the genocide is relatively unknown compared to those that occurred in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany—both of which seemed to be working from the Ottoman playbook—has helped give cover to minimizing the gravity of what actually occurred.
But, as noted conservative Ben Shapiro stated in praising Biden for the decision, rectifying the omission has been “long overdue.”
To understand why this decision is important for us today, though, we must first know a bit more about what happened and why the Ottomans systematically killed so many Armenians.
What is the Armenian Genocide?
The Armenian Genocide refers to a period starting around April 1915, when the Ottoman Empire began to arrest and deport the Armenian population within its borders to concentration camps in the desert. But many never made it that far. Instead, the Ottoman civil and military officials oversaw the systematic mass murder of somewhere between six hundred thousand to well over one million Armenian Christians across the journey.
To understand why the Armenians were targeted, however, requires going back several centuries.
The Armenians maintained a relative level of independence within the region until the Ottoman Empire conquered them during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. While their relationship with the Ottomans was seldom easy in the years that followed—experiencing varying degrees of oppression based on who was in charge and a host of other factors—some Armenians began to rise to economic and political prominence within the empire during the 1700s. As Ronald G. Suny writes, “The prominence and influence of the well-educated and cosmopolitan Armenian elite had a drawback, however, in that it became a source of resentment and suspicion among Muslims.”
When a group of Armenians from Russia began agitating for independence in the late 1800s—a call most Ottoman Armenians rejected—it gave many within the empire’s leadership the provocation they were looking for to begin cracking down on the Christian minority within their borders. Over the next decade, minor uprisings were met with a decisive and harsh response, resulting in tens of thousands of Armenian deaths.
The situation began to escalate in earnest when, in 1913, a more extreme group within the ruling Young Turks movement came to power and increased their oppression of the Armenians by spreading rumors that they were collaborating with foreign powers and blaming them for the empire’s defeat in the First Balkan War (1912–1913).
When the Ottomans joined with Germany and Austria-Hungary a year later in World War I, they attempted to coerce the Armenians among their ranks into convincing their brethren across the Russian border to fight on the Ottomans’ side. The Armenians refused, however. After suffering a resounding defeat to the Russians in 1915, the empire placed the blame squarely on the Armenians and began either killing or deporting the Christians en masse.
By the time the war ended, over 90 percent of the empire’s Armenian population had left or died, and most of the surviving remnant were forced to either convert to Islam or face a similar fate. Their homes and property were divided up amongst Muslim refugees and any remaining traces of their existence were erased from the culture.
Why President Biden’s statement is significant
To this day, Turkey refuses to accept the historically accurate depiction of what occurred between the Ottomans and the Armenians during World War I. While they admit some Christians were deported and killed, they deny that any sort of systematic execution took place. Moreover, they argue that the action was warranted because the Armenians were rebels and represented a risk to national security.
Given that modern-day Turkey—under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—desires to recreate the Ottoman Empire and reclaim its position of international significance, their approach to this issue is notable. Moreover, their increased oppression against dissenters, restrictions on free speech, strict censorship of news and internet sources, and recent history of violence against the Kurds and others demonstrate a willingness to use manipulation and force to maintain their authority.
And while the systematic extinction of those in their way remains further down that path than where they stand today, the similarities between the nineteenth-century Ottoman government and that of modern-day Turkey are notable. All of which makes President Biden’s decision to reclassify the atrocity as genocide both significant and commendable.
That he and his administration are willing to risk the further fraying of our relationship with Turkey to bring awareness and context to the country’s history also demonstrates a tacit awareness that their current trajectory must not be allowed to continue unchecked.
Why this news should matter to us
But, as horrific as the actions of the Ottoman Empire were and as potentially dangerous as Turkey’s present course may be, why should President Biden’s decision to officially acknowledge the genocide as a genocide matter to each of us?
To start, what happens in the Middle East seldom stays in the Middle East. As America prepares to withdraw our remaining troops from Afghanistan in the coming months, present trends—in Turkey and elsewhere—make it easy to imagine a scenario in which their stay back home is relatively short lived.
Will you please join me in praying that tensions in Turkey specifically, but also the region as a whole, decrease? Will you also pray that the spiritual awakening currently bringing thousands of people in the Middle East to Christ each day continues and can be part of that stabilizing force?
Finally, the genocide that killed more than a million Christians a little over a century ago was far from the last time believers were persecuted in that region. Despite the growth of the faith—and perhaps because of that growth—the Middle East remains a very dangerous place to serve our Lord. So as we acknowledge the genocide perpetrated against believers long ago, let that memory fuel your prayers for the believers in harm’s way today as well.
What happened before can happen again.
Let’s pray right now that it doesn’t.