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The Takrir – Memoranda sent by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople to the Ottoman Minister of Justice in 1911

The Takrir Sent by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople to the     Ottoman Minister of Justice, Constantinople, February 14, 1911*

The Armenian Patriarchate submitted numerous reports to the Ottoman government during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, informing it of the precarious living conditions in the central and eastern provinces and the many abuses Armenian peasants endured at the hands of their Turkish and Kurdish neighbors. The most prominent recurring themes found in the takrirs, or memoranda, were the issues of land usurpation and the persistence of semi-feudal practices in the provinces. In the report republished below, the reader may notice the Patriarchate’s frequent references to the constitution of 1876, which the Young Turks had reinstated following the revolution of 1908, and also take note of what high hopes the Armenians had attached to it.  The “agrarian question” and other related matters to land remained vexing problems for which no simple solution was found even as the Ottoman Empire entered World War I in 1914.     

                                                                                                                                   Armen Manuk-Khaloyan                                                                                                                                       Center for Armenian Remembrance

Many years ago, as in 1872 and 1876, and periodically after that, in reports and memoranda presented to the Sublime Porte and local authorities by both the Patriarchate and national dioceses on the various forms of oppression in the Armenian provinces – unpunished crimes committed by unscrupulous persons under the protection of corrupt officials, kidnappings, imposition of onerous taxes, and so on – all that was asked was merely the fair application of the law and the security of life, honor and property. Unfortunately, however, these righteous and just grievances not only went unheard and were not acted upon by the government of the time, but the situation grew progressively worse for the Armenians, who were subjected to a new policy of persecution in spite of the fact that that people had never once wavered in their civic responsibilities.

And so that anti-governmental policy and persecution, and the realization that it was bereft of the protection of the law, drove that defenseless and desperate people toward extreme measures and into such a situation where on the one hand it struggled against its persecutors so as to preserve its existence and on the other, with no recourse to other options and in abject despair, felt compelled to seek redress by appealing to foreign countries.

These manifold types of oppression were only intensified by the scoundrels [mütekâlibs], who, with the encouragement and protection of the government of the time, put into practice all methods of exploitation. They declared themselves the owners of the homes, lands, gardens, pastures, and other possessions belonging to Armenians who had emigrated or been dispersed and even those who lived in their hearths.

As for the local authorities, they partook in all those confiscations through endless violations of the law. They seized many a land through outright falsehood and paid no heed to the complaints of the displaced. They committed numerous fraudulent activities with transfer [intikal] and tapu [property deeds] and settled muhacirs (immigrants) on the lands of those persecuted, and appropriated countless churches, monasteries, cemetery lands, even buildings, and so on.

As a result of those illegal and unjust measures tens of thousands of wretched Armenians have been dispossessed, having been driven away from their ancestral homes and so on.

The Armenian people endeavored to forget in its entirety this disaster of the terrible past in order to sacrifice itself for the fledgling constitution, with the hope that the new system in place would put a definite end to the extraordinary conditions on life, honor, insecurity, and politics, and allow it to give way to peaceful, civic progress.

The Armenian people truly expected that the new regime, being full aware of these state of affairs, would consider the care and enactment of the immediate improvement in the Armenian-populated provinces as one of its first responsibilities, although justice imposes on us the obligation to reveal that in the first days of the constitution the central administration attempted to take a few steps that promised to become the forerunners of the main basis for friendship and peace in Anatolia (such as government protection for the destitute elements; the speedy, just, and fair functioning of courts and administrative councils; opposition to the strict prohibition of the carrying of weapons; the punishment of brutish criminals, a vivid example of which was the liquidation of Ibrahim Pasha’s reign in Diyarbekir, which, along with several other tribal leaders, had become a state within a state).

Unfortunately, not only was this reform program abruptly curtailed, but the Armenians had to suffer yet another calamitous, dreadful disaster, one which surpassed the anguish inflicted by the historical bloodletting during the Hamidian period. We allude to the most horrific and atrocious massacre in Cilicia. Terrifying and unforeseen, it struck the heart of a people who had devoted themselves to and struggled for the constitution and opened a new, indelible, and deep wound, completely staining the clean pages of the Ottoman constitution.[1]

After this appalling calamity, the rebellious reaction in the districts against the constitutional system and the government’s policy of vacillation and restraint brought upon their immediate sorrowful effects: the worsening of conditions in the Armenian-populated provinces and the extinguishing in minutes all the hopes and undertakings built upon law and justice. And after all this, the government’s careless and indecisive policy was actually interpreted by the malefactors as encouragement for their privileged derebeylik [feudalism] and perfidious actions, especially their licentiousness in regard to the Armenian people’s possessions. At the same time there came the governmental council’s September 1, 1326 (1910) order, which gave a legal veneer to forced seizures and which trampled upon the rights of the dispossessed. It also consigned to irrelevance the Council of Ministers’ orders of August 27 and 31, 1325-26 (1909), which had been sanctioned by imperial decree [irade]. This unexpected interference on the part of the governmental council maliciously complicated land disputes, stirred animosity between the oppressors and oppressed, and was the impetus for bloodletting, crimes, such as the horrific offenses in Temran [Darman]and Khut,[2] the slaughter of the unfortunate Armenians, and so on and so on.

The aforementioned order also became a tool in the hands of venal and undeserving officials from the local authorities, working in league with the regional potentates, to legitimate the resumption of land seizures, which the constitution had banned.

The agricultural branches of regional banks extended no small help to the facilitation of this process, such that the lands belonging to the farmers, which were valued at hundreds of pounds of gold, were confiscated and given to their oppressors and the swindlers at prices far below their actual worth through very corrupt means. In many places, even the court of cassation (temyiz), scores of land decisions favorable to the Armenians remained unimplemented.

As a result of this intolerable situation, public security was once again disrupted, the instinct to commit crime and plunder strengthened among the Kurd aşirets [tribes], who audaciously began to patrol armed. Organized groups of brigands composed of dozens of individuals come out to attack and prey upon the Armenian people. They demand once more the payment of exorbitant taxes formerly repealed by the constitution and subject them to tyranny. They grow bolder in their violations of the honor and religion of Armenian women and girls. The audacity of the guilty and the government’s accommodation reached such a level that in the district of Bunian[-Hamid] of Sebasteia [Sivas], the issue of converting an Armenian girl to Islam was brought to attention of the Sharia court under the pretext that she had been promised [to them] from the cradle. In Muş a diyet [blood money] case was filed. The process took place in a location where tens of thousands of Armenians had been killed, and this during a time when racial harmony was supposedly considered so valuable by the country. A high-level military official such as Osman Pasha sows seeds of racial discord and remains unpunished.

In order to give Your Excellency an approximate idea of the oppression and crimes committed against the Armenians just this year alone, we do not considered it unnecessary to furnish the enclosed list.

We who believed that the establishment of the constitution would put an end to our historic protests, today, unfortunately, are disappointed by the government’s negligent attitude of the past two years of the [reinstating of the] constitution, particularly in respect to the provinces of Baghesh [Bitlis], Van, Diyarbekir, and Kharpert, where the insecurity of life, property, and honor reigns supreme.

My patriarchate, in fulfillment of its responsibilities, has in the name of the fatherland [hayrenik’] and in the interest of seeing the betterment of the Armenian people periodically presented takrirs and reports regarding the sorrowful consequences of the renewed persecution by the oppressors. We have continued to convey verbally appeals to the Sublime Porte to bring an end to these pernicious iniquities, a sampling of which we have enclosed in our list of documents provided to the Porte. None have earned serious and true consideration.

This incomprehensible policy of the central administration reached such an intolerable level that one compassionate and competent vali [provincial governor] after another in the Armenian provinces resigned from their positions in disillusionment. And the result of all this was by then predictable. That is:

1. Unfortunately, the work to pacify Anatolia came to an end; civil security took on an even graver form; crimes disrupting the people’s peace and calm began to take place without interruption and increased day to day.

2. The land question, the principle reason along whose axis revolts took place and the primary motivation for the bloodletting in the same provinces, was not only not resolved, but allowed for completely new instances of confiscation, which were dishonestly bestowed with tapus, transfers, and ilams [legal sentences] by the local authorities and courts. The lands of the Armenian farmers who had been deprived of the law began to be declared the property of the confiscators. And not only during the previous period [Hamidian era] but even last year and this year, with illegal mahluls [vacant land that escheated to the state] and without mahluliyets [solvent assets], new muhacirs were settled and are being settled on stolen Armenian lands. And the illegalities revolving around the land question were endorsed with the unanticipated decisions taken by the Council of State on April 1, 1326 (1910) and the Council of Ministers on September 30, 1327 (1911). 

3. The trial dates of many infamous criminals who have been jailed for a long time are still being postponed. None among them has received a punishment (the authors of the killings in Temran, Khut, Aljavaz [Adilcevaz], in Bitlis). In Van, Kravlı Şakir, Jafat, Kadir, Reşit, and numerous other criminals were released unpunished. In Bitlis, Sasnlı, Bambure Kinco; in Muş, Haci Fero and others; in Kharzan [Harzan], Pışare Cemil.  

4. Those brigands and murderers who, along with groups consisting of dozens of armed servants in their entourage, have committed various crimes and continue to do so have not been pursued earnestly and vigorously enough (Sait Sırmeo, Mir Mhe, Mame, and others in Van; Pışare Çato, and the criminals of Khut, the servant of Ghasim Bey, Halil, and others). Nor were criminals who were granted amnesty after the constitution and who went on to commit new offenses pursued (Seit Ali, Hussein Pasha, Pervarlı Tahar Agha, Ketsani Musa Bey, etc.). And some not only escaped punishment but were conferred with government positions (Khian Mudir Kör Alo, in Bitlis; Peçari Ali Bey, Kinci idare Aghasi, Dereli Mehmet Bey; Ketsmani Musa Bey, the  Mudir [commissioner or chief] of Orman, in Van and so on).

5. The government allowed for the proceeding of the shameful and unjust diyet trial in Muş.

6. Countless kidnappings and forced conversions to Islam were legalized, in violation of the constitution and the law on the freedom of conscience, and this was a reason for continued kidnappings by armed groups.

7. The confident and powerful feudal lords [avatakanut’yun], who comprise the state within the state, once more sullied the integrity of the Armenian peasants by subjecting them to kiafir-like tributes and protection taxes.[3]

8. The privilege to carry weapons was freely enjoyed by the feudal lords and their underlings, while the prohibition to carry them was applied solely against the Armenians.

9. As before, positions in local and central government remained in the hands of scoundrels, whose familiar ways of working brought disgrace to the government and represent a source of immorality. And instead of holding responsible such weak and criminal officials by apprehending and punishing them, the central government is satisfied with shuffling them around, and in many cases promoting them to higher positions.

10. Administrative and judicial bodies staffed with such irresponsible officials who never applied fairness and impartiality in practice have often alienated a desperate people denied the protection of the law.

11. The primary actors responsible for disrupting the security of the country are the nomadic clans, who violate law and rights, solely employ violence and attack with weapons, seize lands, commit crimes, and are not seriously held accountable by the government. It has yet to undertake any measures to sequester and contain them permanently in their previous residences so as to prevent them from raiding Van, Bitlis, and other mountainous regions; confiscating private lands and pasturages belonging to the civil population; mercilessly carrying out every form of abuse that nullifies the labors of the industrious farmer.

Naturally, the congress of the representatives of the Armenian nation could not remain indifferent to this unmistakably grave threat to the existence of the Armenian people. We believe Your Excellency is well aware of its express concern and distress over this matter.

For this reason, my lord, impelled by our obligations and sentiments, we appeal to Your Excellency and request that these mistakes be swiftly remedied and that the evil threatening the country and the Armenian people be expunged…

* State Historical Archives of Armenia, f. 57, op. 5, d. 15, ll. 3-8, republished in Hayots’ ts’eghaspanut’yuně Osmanyan kaysrut’yunum: Pastat’ght’eri yev nyut’eri zhoghovatsu [The Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire: Collected documents and materials], compiled by Mkrtich G. Nersisyan and Ruben G. Sahakyan (Erevan: Hayastan, 1991), pp. 268-75.

[1] Reference is made to the massacre in the province of Adana in April 1909, when approximately 20,000 Armenians were killed in the midst of a counter-revolution. Though the revolution was defeated and Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909) was later unseated, confidence in building upon harmonious and cordial ties between Turks and Armenians was greatly shaken. – A. M-K.

[2] A series of murders were carried out by Kurdish tribes in the kaza of Khut, near Sasun, in 1911. Temran was located near the county of Kghi in Erzurum province.– A. M-K.

[3] The kiafir or hafir (hapir) was a “protection” tax exacted on the Armenians by Kurdish tribes or landlords and usually was levied at a much higher amount than the regular tax collected by the government.