It’s a safe bet that the martyrdom of Blessed Ignazio Maloyan will not be publicly remembered in Turkey this year. After all, on April 24, 2021, when President Joe Biden dared to use the word “genocide”—a word that US presidents have carefully avoided using for over a century—to describe the deaths that occurred in Turkey in 1915, the Turkish government angrily rejected the very idea that a genocide had occurred.
But the evidence is easy to find. Almost two million men, women, and children were killed in Turkey in just the spring and summer of 1915. A dictionary definition of genocide is “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group,” and that is clearly what was intended by Turkish leaders when they ordered the murder of Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians in that fateful year. How could anyone refuse to acknowledge the photographic and physical evidence of two million dead men, women, and children?
Perhaps the problem is not that Turkish leaders do not understand certain words (such as “genocide”) the same way we do, but the fact that they see the same events in a different way. To better understand those differences, we can examine a different genocide, one that occurred in the early fourth century in the Roman Empire.
Fourth-century Rome and the Christians
In general, the emperors of Rome during the first to fourth centuries did not persecute Christians because they were easily offended by other religions. Part of the success of the Roman Empire lay in its relative tolerance of the customs of the people that it conquered; after all, Romans wanted their massive empire to run smoothly, for the sake of peace and a healthy economy.
The Roman emperor Diocletian did not begin his reign during the late third century by persecuting Christians. The empire was too close to invasion and economic collapse for him to focus on anything else. But Diocletian’s military successes, administrative reorganizations, and tax reforms resulted in many improvements over the years. However, the empire was still unstable in the early fourth century, and for multiple reasons he became convinced that he needed to purify his court—and then the empire itself—of any group that opposed the longstanding religious traditions of Rome. Christians were the primacy focus of his purging.
In Diocletian’s mind, the good of the empire required the favor of the gods, and Christians—particularly Christian soldiers in his army—were harming the entire empire by not offering sacrifices to those gods. Didn’t they realize how important this was to protect the stability of the empire? That it would only cost them a little time, money, and incense?
From 303 to 312, Diocletian unleashed one of the worst persecutions that the Church has ever known. The well-known saints Agnes, Benignus, Christina, Chrysogonus, Cosmas and Damian, Dorothy, Irenaeus, Januarius, Lucy, Marcellinus and Peter, and Sebastian—and many more—were all brutally killed during these bloody years.
Twentieth-century Turkey and the Christians
In the early twentieth century, many Turkish leaders recognized that the autocratic monarchy of the Ottoman Empire was a thing of the past. They wanted to replace it with a constitutional, democratic government, just like those of many other successful nations, a goal with which we Americans can sympathize.
However, the Turkish leaders who led this movement—commonly called the Young Turks—did not sound like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Instead, these Turkish leaders were secular intellectuals and revolutionaries who favored violence over reasoned arguments. Also, as Muslims, they saw the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians living in Turkey as threats to the country’s safety from foreign powers, as “fifth columnists” who would betray Turkey if given a chance. So they gave the Christians no chance.
They deported close to two million of these Christians into remote areas over several months. Many died of disease, hunger, and exposure. Others died of torture, rape, and outright murder.
The Bishop and his flock
Blessed Ignazio Maloyan was born in Turkey, but he was a priest of the Armenian Catholic Church and later archbishop of Mardin, Turkey. On June 3, 1915, he was arrested, and more than eight hundred Catholics had been arrested by the following day. While in court, the judge told Bishop Maloyan to convert to Islam. When the bishop refused, he was returned to jail and tortured mercilessly.
Soon afterward, more than four hundred Armenian Christians were gathered together and led by soldiers into the desert. The bishop, who was among them, encouraged his people and celebrated his final Mass with them using scraps of bread. On June 10, 1915, soldiers slaughtered these Christians in front of him.
A leader of the soldiers approached Bishop Maloyan again and insisted that he convert to Islam. When he refused, he was shot. The reports of eyewitnesses who saw Bishop Maloyan’s steadfastness in court, his prayers while being tortured, and even his prayers for God’s mercy after he had been shot were cited during his beatification process.
Bishop Maloyan’s refusal to become a Muslim made him a traitor to the new Turkish state, just as so many early Church martyrs were seen as dangers to the Roman Empire for their failure to conform to the pagan religion of the state. But unlike the Christians killed by Al Qaeda and ISIS, neither group was executed primarily out of religious fundamentalism.
For both the ancient Roman authorities and the followers of the Young Turks Movement, Christians needed to be eliminated because they were a danger to the almighty state. Didn’t those foolish Christians realize that the god or God or gods you worshiped were less important than ensuring the success of the state? That the loss of hundreds or thousands or even millions of lives is less important than achieving the utopian dreams of the ruling party?
On June 11, we can honor the holiness of Blessed Ignazio, who died with his people and for his God. We can mourn the deaths of millions of unknown Christians whose only crime was their faith. And we can remember that love for one’s country is a virtue—which comes after love for the God who died for us all.
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