by Fr. Michael Harper


The century, which has just passed, was one of unprecedented bloodshed. There were not only wars on a massive scale, but acts of genocide of hideous proportions. The famous Rabbi, the late Hugo Gryn, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz, answered the question "where was God in Auschwitz?" — "I believe God was there Himself, violated and blasphemed. The real question is where was man in Auschwitz?'"

One hundred years ago the Victorian age was slipping away. Queen Victoria herself was only to live for a few weeks in the new century. There was a sense of high achievement. Most felt it had been a good century. But not so with the one which we have just said "goodbye" to. Allan Massie, writing in the Daily Telegraph on Boxing Day this year, comments — "today there is no such feeling in the air of a great age that is passing. The 20th Century is merely being shuffled off."

The Idea of Progress was one of the dominant streams of thought at the beginning of the 20thCentury. It has taken a nose dive as the century has progressed. When I once asked a flight attendant on a Lebanese plane, "are you Christian or Moslem" he replied "neither, I have lived through the Civil War". In his book Chasing Shadows Hugo Gryn writes of the Shoah(Holocaust) "It is certainly for Christians a disaster: it is the ultimate betrayal of the values for which Christianity stands".

In drawing attention to the Orthodox Holocausts one is by no means minimising the crimes committed against the Jewish people in theirs. Also in the European setting it is important to place the blame fairly. The Germans were the guilty perpetrators of the Jewish genocide. But much of the rest of Europe co-operated. Again Hugo Gryn writes, "All parts of society in Europe colluded, the academic, the judiciary, industry, business, trade unions, educators."

But the Orthodox holocausts were terrible also. It is not often recognised that in the case of Russia it exceeded the Jewish in terms of victims massacred, or imprisoned in concentration camps, or Gulags as they came to be called in Russia. But there was something uniquely horrible about the Shoah. The calculated manner in which it was organised and the treatment of human beings surely touched a nadir of human history.

The Shoah is now remembered in numerous holocaust museums. The Jews are right to keep reminding us of the depths that mankind can go in degradation. But the time has come for Christians to remember their holocausts, which have largely been forgotten. In the case of the Armenian this has been the deliberate policy of the Turks who were its perpetrators. Even recently the American House of Representatives withdrew an Armenian genocide resolution. More about that later. So, as we look at what our Christian brothers and sisters have suffered for their faith, let us do so in the spirit of forgiveness, exemplified during the year 2000 by Pope John Paul II.

When the husband of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, herself later a victim of the Russian holocaust — was blown to pieces by an assassin's bomb in Russia, she had a monument placed in the square where he died, with the words "Father, forgive them they know not what they do." We can do no other.

As David Barrett has shown, there have been more Christian martyrs in the 20th Century than in all the previous centuries put together. Orthodox holocausts have been selected not only because they have been numerically the largest, but also the least well known.

"Who today remembers the Armenians?"

Armenia was the first nation to embrace Christianity, and has a long and well developed Christian history. Starting in 1915 the Turks systematically murdered over 1.5 million Armenians, most of them Orthodox Christians. It started on April 8th, when over 10,000 were murdered. By April 19th it was known in Berlin that more than 50,000 had been murdered in the Province of Van alone. The Armenians appealed for protection to Germany because it was supposed to be a Christian country, and was also the ally of Turkey.

At first no protest was expressed from other countries. Appeals to the United States fell on deaf ears. The massacres went on. In Bitlis 15,000 Armenians were murdered in 8 days. In the port of Trebizond over a two week period, over 17,000 were killed in an orgy of destruction by Turkish troops. At the same time over 200,000 were forcibly converted to Islam. Eventually on May 24th there was a joint statement made by the British, French and Russian governments describing the killings as "a crime against humanity and civilisation". The original Russian draft had the words "Christianity and civilisation". But the British and French had the word "Christianity" changed to "humanity" in order not to offend the Muslims in India and the French colonies. Times have not changed much in this respect.

William Dalrymple, a Roman Catholic travel writer, in his book From the Holy Mountain gives eye witness evidence when he travelled through Anatolia of the deliberate attempt of the Turks to destroy all the evidence of the pogrom. He saw old Armenian church buildings being literally ground to powder. We need to remember that when Adolf Hitler was asked about the possible repercussions of the Shoah he said — "who today remembers the Armenians?"

From 1945 the politics of the cold war has played a big part in all this. NATO, formed to defend western Europe, had to secure the support of the Turks to defend a vulnerable flank which was close to Russia. This was the main reason also why NATO did nothing when Turkey invaded and annexed a part of Cyprus. Like the Cypriots the Armenians are deemed by the Great Powers as too insignificant to bother with in the power struggles of our day.


The major area of suffering by Christians in the last century has been in Russia. Although the persecutions affected other Roman Catholic and Protestant communities, it was the Orthodox Church which bore the brunt of it. In 1917 there were over 80,000 Orthodox Churches, Chapels and Monasteries in Russia. By 1939, probably the nadir of the fortunes of the Russian Orthodox Church, there were only 200-300 left.

By 1939 over 80,000 bishops, priests, deacons and religious had been murdered. The suffering of the laity was both economic and political. Famine took at least 7 million in 1922, and more than 7 million in 1930. The purges of Stalin in 1934 killed at least 19 million Russians, including millions of Orthodox believers. Stalin in his five year plan of 1932 made it his open objective to eradicate the whole Church. In 1914 there were 163 bishops; by 1939 there were only 4 active bishops left. In 1914 there were 51,000 priests, in 1939 a few hundred. In 1914 57 seminaries. In 1939 none.

It is often overlooked that some of the worst persecution occurred after the Second World War. From 1959 onwards, this was carried out under the direction of Khrushchev.

Croatia in the former Yugoslavia

The former Dean of Winchester, Trevor Beeson, writing in his book Discretion and Valour, says that it is "impossible to understand the present religious situation in Yugoslavia without taking into account the wartime sufferings of the country." Alth,ugh he was writing about the 70s, his words are equally valid for our day, and particularly in the light of the recent conflict in Kosovo. Croatia became independent in 1941 after it had been invaded by Italian, German, Hungarian and Bulgarian armies. A puppet State in inner Serbia was set up under a Fascist, Ante Pavelic, and the rest of the country was carved up between the invaders. The Fascist party was called Ustasa. Its aim was to avenge the repression of Croats by Serbs and to "purify" the State of Orthodoxy. It was made public that one-third of Serbs would be converted (to Roman Catholicism), one-third expelled and one-third killed. The vision had clearly expressed devotion to the Roman Catholic Church and the spirit of the Crusades. It effectively destroyed the Orthodox Church in this area. Some Roman Catholic priests and friars took part in the killings and acts of violence.

Of the 2 million Serbs targeted, 350,000 were killed, 300,000 deported or fled and 250,000 converted under duress to the Roman Catholics. There were mass re-baptisms. Three Bishops and about 220 priests were murdered.

Why remember?

Are not these horrors best forgotten? Unfortunately they have a habit of sticking in the consciousness of those affected. Both Northern Ireland and the Palestinian issues testify clearly to this. People don't forget easily. Nor should they be asked to do so. But for Christians the remembrance will have a different feel about it.

First of all, our minds need to be purged of a spirit of hatred or revenge. There is nothing that men can do to one another which cannot be forgiven and cleansed by the blood of Christ. Above all our remembrances need to be in the setting of forgiveness; we need to leave judgement in the hands of God.

Secondly, we have a duty to remember because those who suffered were our own brothers and sisters in Christ. As the Church remembers the martyrs of all past centuries, so these need to be held in honour by us all. Their memory is eternal.


The Armenian massacres — A History of the Twentieth Century Vol 1 by Martin Gilbert.

The Russian — A Long Walk to Church — a contemporary History of Russian Orthodoxy by Nathaniel Davis.

The Serbian — Discretion and Valour by Trevor Beeson.