ISTANBUL (CNS) — As a light snow fell, Bahija Geyimli exited Immaculate Conception Armenian Catholic Church after Mass in the Samatya neighborhood, the heart of Istanbul’s Armenian community. If recent attacks in the area had scared her, she wasn’t showing it.
Wrapping a wool scarf around her head, Geyimli, 71, descended the church’s ancient stone steps.
“There are robberies,” she acknowledged on 27 January in response to a question about a series of assaults that have targeted Armenian women like her.
Geyimli said she thought the women had been attacked because “Armenians are known for keeping money and other valuables.”
“It’s for money. … It’s not because they were Christian,” she told Catholic News Service.
She walked through the church courtyard and headed for an empty Samatya side street, alone, carrying a big black purse.
Four attacks have occurred since December in Samatya, a once-flourishing Christian Armenian and Greek neighborhood bordering the Marmara Sea. The area today mostly is inhabited by Muslims who make up the vast majority of Turkey’s population of 75 million.
Turkish media reported that all of the victims — at least three of whom were in their 80s — were Armenian Christians; three were assaulted in their homes while one was stabbed to death. One woman was assaulted on her way to church by three men who tried to kidnap her before they were chased away by passersby, according to the reports. Valuables were stolen in at least three of the incidents.
An estimated 120,000 Christians of different denominations and about 25,000 Jews live in Turkey. Muslim minority groups live among the larger Sunni majority.
“Of course we deplore such attacks,” said a senior member of Turkey’s 35,000-member Catholic community who asked to remain anonymous because of a growing apprehension in the wake of the crimes. Though the victims have been Orthodox Christians, he said attacks on any of the country’s religious minorities were worrisome.
He also cautioned against jumping to conclusions about who or what was behind the assaults.
“That can be counterproductive,” he said.
Turkey’s relationship with its minorities is a long and sometimes murky one. The country’s present government and those before it dispute international claims that tens of thousands of Armenians and other Christians were victims of genocide in 1915 in what was then the Ottoman Empire.
Circumstances surrounding more recent attacks on Christians remain controversial. The killings of Father Andrea Sontoro in Trabzon in 2006, the shooting death of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink and the killing of three Christian missionaries in Malatya in central Turkey in 2007, and the slaying of Bishop Luigi Padovese of Anatolia in 2010 serve as reminders to members of religious minorities of the challenges they continue to face.
Turkey’s Human Rights Association suggested in a report released 25 January the Samatya attacks were part of an “ethnic cleansing” campaign. Responding to the report, a prominent Armenian journalist based in Istanbul said it was too early to say what motivated the assaults on the women, but bemoaned what he considered an insufficient government response.
“Now, people are waiting in fear. The Interior Ministry should establish a commission and should conduct a very thorough investigation,” journalist Robert Koptas told Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper in Turkey.
Shortly after Geyimly left Mass, a group of about 500 people gathered in a main square nearby to protest the attacks. The demonstrators, including residents, members of local organizations and elected officials, held signs reading “Don’t touch our Armenian neighbors,” and “I will not let you hurt my brothers and sisters.”
“We walked [through] Samatya from side streets and it was lively, there were many people in their windows applauding the crowd, and old women were crying,” said Oyku Tumer, one of the demonstrators who called herself “a Turkish citizen … against hate crimes.”
Later, Mustafa Demir, a local politician, visited the victimized women in their homes and said police were conducting a thorough investigation in an effort to find the assailants, according to media reports.
The next day, Cengiz Kahveci, 60, an electrician, sat waiting for customers in his Samatya spare parts shop. He said the recent attacks perplexed him, but he refused to believe they were religiously motivated because Muslims, Christians and Jews have always lived “happily together.”
“Armenian people are good people,” Kahveci told CNS, describing himself as a nonpracticing but “believing Muslim.”
“I have maybe 10 friends who are Armenian and [even] they don’t believe [the attacks] are political … it is for money,” he said.