Generic Armenians fleeing Syria for no particular reason

For news consumers who are closely following events on the ground in Syria, especially those of us who are worried about the protection of religious minorities there, it will come as little surprise to learn that ethnic Armenians are fleeing the dangerous cities and towns of Syria.

Logically enough, The New York Times reports that many of these refugees are fleeing back into Armenia, to a “motherland most barely know.”

And what is this flight all about, according to the Times team? Might this have something to do with religion and centuries of persecution?

The following passage is long, but GetReligion readers need to see the logic of this piece. I will interject the occasional question of my own.

Their ancestors fled the Ottoman genocide in what is now Turkey nearly a century ago and flourished in Syria, reviving one of the many minority groups that have long coexisted there.

Nope, no signs of religious strife there.

Now, the flight of Syrian Armenians — one of many lesser-noticed ripple effects that could reshape countries well beyond Syria’s neighbors — is raising questions about the future of Syria’s diversity. And it is forcing Armenia, which depends on its strong diaspora communities to augment its otherwise scant geopolitical heft, to make delicate calculations about whether to encourage their exodus or slow it.

The future of Syria’s diversity? Nope. No signs of religious ghosts there, so let’s jump down a bit.

Ethnic Armenians are a fraction of an accelerating flood of fleeing Syrians expected to reach 700,000 by year’s end, mainly in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. But since the Armenians, unlike other Syrians, can easily acquire an alternative nationality, Syria could see one of its vibrant communities permanently diminished.

One might even ask: Are many of those who are desperately fleeing Syria part of threatened religious minorities?

Syrian Armenians are known for their gold and silver craftsmanship and exquisite cuisine. They are also a critical component of Syria’s connection to Russia and the West, serving an intermediary role through their relations with the global Armenian diaspora.

Food is important. However, might Armenians also be known, in Syria, for their religious beliefs and traditions? Might that have something to do with those lingering ties to Russia, in particular, in addition to the Soviet Union history?

Just asking.

Then, a few lines later, but well into this report, Times readers learn:

While Syrian Armenians have remained officially neutral in Syria’s civil war, as Christians many are wary of the rebels’ Islamist strains, and as Armenians suspicious of the rebels’ Turkish support.

But, alas, that’s just about all that one learns on the religion questions looming in the background. You know those Armenians, this is really all about ethnic identity, politics, power and money. You see, in Armenia:

A vociferous minority has seized on fears of violence in Syria — and memories of the Ottoman genocide — to push for a larger nationalist goal, the return of all Armenians to the country.

“This is our land — not L.A., not New York, not Syria,” said Vartan Marashlyan, Armenia’s former deputy diaspora minister and the executive director of Repat Armenia, an organization founded in August to “actively champion” what it calls the “repatriation” of Armenians from around the world.

Syrian Armenians who yearn for Syria “want to be in the Aleppo of one year ago,” a setting whose peaceful coexistence may not return, he said. Referring to estimates of genocide deaths, he added, “We lost 1.5 million people to this mentality that it will all work out.”

You see, religion really isn’t that big a part of the emerging picture in Syria or, well, Egypt or Libya. Did religion have anything to do with that whole genocide business?

Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind. These ethnic groups and distressed minorities. Why can’t they just GET ALONG?

IMAGE: By Laura. An Armenian Orthodox church in Damascus.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia

    I just got back from an Assyrian Catholic wedding in Michigan where I met many folks who have fled Iraq and Syria. Some left years ago, but the latest contingent got the message when a relative was beheaded and others were kidnapped and held for ransom by Islamists. One widow is so proud to be taking her US citizenship test next week – as a refugee she left a big house with gardens carrying only one suitcase. The Islamists will now take over that house. None of this makes our newspapers!

  • sari

    But Julia, it hasn’t made the papers for any religious group, certainly not the Syrian Jews who were persecuted, denied employment, had their property expropriated, their passports revoked, and were at the same time prohibited from leaving the country in the wake of Israel winning the war of independence in 1948 until the present time. If they’re not the subject of blatant persecution now, it’s only because very few remain.

  • dalea

    In Los Angeles, we do see press coverage of the persecution of Armenians in Syria. I have encountered it on the local teevee news and in the Times and Daily News. Additionally, almost every grocery with an Armenian clientele will have posters up about the subject. And Armenians of my acquantence make a point of telling everybody about this. Stopped in a store the other day and the owner introduced his cousin who had fled Syria. There were pictues and signs about this all over the place. Los Angeles has the largest Armenian community in the world, they make a point of getting the news out.

  • Julia

    … Fleeing is very, very far from the first reaction for Armenians, other indigenous Christians or the Jews that Sari mentions. These folks have lived in that part of the world for thousands of years. An Armenian woman I met at the wedding told me that her parents fled as children from what was called Turkey and barely made it to Baghdad where they had to start all over again without parents or family. In Iraq the new regime is not stopping the Islamists from confiscating the property of minorities, kidnapping them for ransom and beheading Christians who refuse to close their churches.

    And I have heard and read about how Jews in that region have been treated since 1948 – my sister did her bas mitzva some years ago and my youngest brother is married to a daughter of Holocaust survivors. My point is the press is bending over backwards to avoid covering the significance of the religious affiliations of people affected by the violence other than various Muslim groups – and mostly they don’t do that very well, either. There’s an indigenous group that is somehow connected to the Zoarastrians and very heavy into angels that is never mentioned. It’s almost like we don’t want to know about the various ancient peoples in the Near East.

    Even if the press and other media are totally secular and think religious belief is silly, these affiliations have real world consequences and it would be a service to our politicians to have them explain the various peoples involved in the recent events in Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, etc. It’s interesting that nobody mentions why what is now just called Jordan, was previously known as “Trans-Jordan”. We are just getting surface reporting.

  • sari

    ” Fleeing is very, very far from the first reaction for Armenians, other indigenous Christians or the Jews that Sari mentions. These folks have lived in that part of the world for thousands of years.”

    That’s right, Julia. And many of those families’ ancestors settled in what is now Syria prior to Islam’s inception.

    Americans and most Europeans live in a society where religion is compartmentalized, where it is socially and legally unacceptable to harm people of other faiths. Perhaps journalists cannot parse the way religious affiliation is used to effect bloodshed.

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