At the end of this week, on April 24, many will recall the Armenian Genocide by observing the “The Armenian Day of Remembrance.” This day remembers the more than one million Armenians who were slaughtered by the Ottoman government during and after World War I. Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, describes the genocide:
Centuries of honest accomplishments and creativity were swiftly plundered…Thousands of monasteries and churches were desecrated and destroyed. National institutions and schools were razed and ruined. Our spiritual and cultural treasures were uprooted and obliterated. Western Armenia, where for millennia — from the time of Noah – our people lived, created and built their history and culture, had been wrested from its native population.
In 1993, construction crews working at the college of St. Joseph Antoura in Lebanon made a macabre discovery. Buried in mass graves behind the school were human bones — the small bones of children.
Researcher Missak Kelechian, an electrical engineer from California, traced the find to the period when the Lazarite school had been operated as an orphanage by the Ottoman Turks in the aftermath of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Some 1,000 Armenian children, between the ages of 3 and 15, were joined by another 200 Kurds at Antoura. Their parents had perished, driven into the Syrian desert where they were subjected to the systematic Ottoman program of plunder, starvation, kidnapping, human trafficking, rape and murder.
At Antoura, the orphans were enrolled in a ruthless program of “Turkification” beginning with a forced conversion of the Christian children to Islam. Their Armenian names were erased from school records and replaced with Muslim names, they were taught to speak Turkish, the boys circumcised and all were indoctrinated with the glories of Turkish nationalism. Those who did not conform were subjected to the falaqa, a brutal whipping of the soles of their feet with a stiff rod. According to Kelechian, around 350 children died at the orphanage — succumbing to starvation, cholera and the violence.
Antoura was not the only center of Turkification for children. One estimate puts the total number of Armenian orphans at 150,000. The Armenian Patriarchate estimated that some 60,000 Armenian children were still being held in Turkish orphanages or Muslim homes in the early 1920s.