Turkey’s Armenian community is becoming increasingly fearful about reprisals as fighting rages in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory claimed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, which has the support of the Turkish government. On October 5, a convoy of Turkish ultra-nationalists stormed the Kurtulus neighborhood, home to a large Armenian population. Photos posted on Twitter show Azeri and Turkish flags draped on the roofs of their vehicles.
In the past few weeks, between 300 and 400 people have been killed in a flare-up in fighting over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought over for decades. Turkey has thrown its support behind Azerbaijan in the dispute. It’s in this climate of heightened tension that a group of Azeri supporters stormed Istanbul’s Kurtulus neighborhood, home to numerous Armenians.
The video below, filmed from a nearby building, shows a group of vehicles blocking the street, hazard lights flashing and honking erratically. The cars are draped with Azeri and Turkish flags. The scene took place on Halaskargazi Avenue, one of Istanbul’s main roads.
On September 28, the day after fighting broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh, a similar convoy drove into Kumkapi, another Armenian neighbourhood in Istanbul where the Armenian Patriarchate is located.
“The police could stop these convoys immediately, on the grounds that they are disturbing public order but the fact that they managed to storm both Kurtulus and Kumkapi is evidence of how little the authorities care. If people were organising a rally in support of LGBTQ rights or the pro-Kurdish HDP party [Editor’s note: The People’s Democratic Party], it would have been shut down immediately and there would have been numerous arrests,” said one journalist based in Istanbul, who asked to remain anonymous.
Many Armenians see this an attempt to intimidate their community.
“I study the people around me closely to see if there is hostility in their gazes”
Digran (not his real name) is a 35-year-old Armenian with Lebanese origins. He and his wife live in the Bakirkoy neighbourhood, which is largely Armenian.
“My family and I haven’t received any direct threats. However, we haven’t felt safe since the start of the conflict in Nagorno- Karabakh. When I go out in the street or when I go into shops, I study the people around me closely to see if there is hostility in their gazes. I avoid saying my name to people I don’t know because it is clearly Armenian. We keep a low profile to avoid reprisals.
Because I am from Lebanon and I speak Arabic, I usually say I am Lebanese, not Armenian.
In the past few months, two Armenian churches were vandalised. Now, I no longer go to church on Sunday because I am afraid of being the victim of an attack.”
On May 23, 2020, before the conflict began in Nagorno-Karabakh, a surveillance camera captured footage of a man ripping down a cross from the gate of a church in the Galata neighborhood in Istanbul. A few days before, on May 9, another person tried to set fire to the gate of another church in the Bakirkoy neighborhood.
Human rights activists say that these attacks, which may seem like isolated incidents, are actually the result of a surge in hate speech aimed at religious and ethnic minorities in Turkey.
The Hrant Dink Foundation, named after the former editor-in-chief of the Armenian magazine Agos, who was killed in 2007 – published a report on hate speech in Turkey in 2019. The study showed that Armenians were the group most targeted by insults and hate speech, followed by Syrians, Greeks, Jews, the Rûm, who are Antiochian Greeks, and Christians.