Historical Observations: The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Turkish Question, February-April 1920

October 25, 2020
By Stavros Stavris

The Allied powers (Great Britain, France, Italy, and Greece) held a conference in London on February 12-March 10 and March 11-April 1920 to discuss the future peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire. During the conference proceedings, two telegrams were sent by the Episcopal Diocese of New York, Bishop Burch, and the Holy Synod of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Constantinople in early March to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the former telegram, Bishop Burch of New York sent a telegram on behalf of 100 American Bishops that stated:

"We are grateful for your leadership in a crusade against the retention of Turks in Constantinople and spoliation of Armenia. Any compromise with Turks will be condonation of crime and will outrage the conscience of Christendom. We believe Armenia, landlocked, and robbed of her fairest portions, cannot achieve real independence or self-support. We respectfully but energetically protest against proposed measures and appeal to people of Great Britain to prevent the perpetuation of a fresh act of injustice against Martyr Armenia.

“American people have always placed implicit faith in the pledges of Great Britain. We cannot believe Great Britain will disappoint us by failing to do full justice to Armenia."

The Archbishop of Canterbury replied: "After consultation am glad to assure American bishops of my continued and cordial sympathy in measures to secure safety, independence, and freedom of worship to all Christian races hitherto subjected to Turkey. Question of best means to attain this object is receiving most careful consideration of the British Government in concert with their Allies. We have counted on America's co-operation in this matter and hope we may feel assured that she will bear her part in the protection of oppressed Eastern nationalities."

Comment: The responses are due to the Armenian massacres that happened in late January/early February 1920 in Marash and surrounding villages in Cilicia. After World War I, this region was garrisoned by British troops until its handover to the French administration in October 1919. The European powers hoped the United States would have accepted the mandate for the whole of Anatolia.

The French used American property to house their troops in Marash. Several factors resulted in the Armenian massacres. Firstly, the Turks were angry with Armenian Legionnaires and Senegalese wearing the French military uniform; secondly, the French military governor in Marash, Captain Andre, took down the Ottoman flag and hoisted the French one in its place; and finally, Kemalist agents waged an anti-French and anti-Armenian campaign. Their objective was to occupy Cilicia and drive out the French.

Marash was under siege where the French garrison was greatly outnumbered by Turkish nationalist forces. They withdrew along with American missionaries leaving the Armenians in the town to fend for themselves. A few weeks later, the French regained control of Marash. It is estimated that 15,000 Armenians were massacred by the Kemalists in the French-controlled zone. When news reached London regarding the Marash massacres, the French were criticized for not defending the town and failing to assist the Armenians.

The Allies decided that some kind of action had to be taken against the Ottoman Government over the Marash massacres. Removing the Sultan from Constantinople was contemplated but never carried out. An Indian Caliphate delegation arrived in London in early March where they declared that the Sultan is their Caliph and should remain in Constantinople otherwise Britain could face serious problems from her Muslim subjects in India.

On March 16, the Allies occupied the Ottoman War and Admiralty ministries, and took control of the posts, telegraphs, and telephones in Constantinople. The Sultan remained in Constantinople on the condition that no further massacres took place. This was embodied in Article 36 of the Treaty of Sevres.

The second half of the article stated that "nevertheless, in the event of Turkey failing to observe faithfully the provisions of the present Treaty, or of any treaties or conventions supplementary thereto, particularly as regards the protection of the rights of racial, religious or linguistic minorities, the Allied Powers expressly reserve the right to modify the above provisions, and Turkey hereby agrees to accept any dispositions which may be taken in this connection." The Allies could have easily removed the Sultan from Constantinople but chose not to.

In the second telegram, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Constantinople stated: "To fortify in energetic fashion the Government of Britain, the country actuated before all others by great and liberal principles to drive out the Turks. By this complete and final expulsion, though by no other means, can be secured the resurrection of Christianity in the Near East and the restoration of the Church of Saint Sophia. The telegram was signed by Dorotheos, Archbishop of Broussa, local tenens of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and Archbishops Nicholas (Charia), Constantine, (Amassia), Gerasimos (Pisidia), Gerasimos (Ankara), Anthimos (Viza), Joachim (Enos), Eugenios (Sylivria), Agathagelos (Saranta Ecclission), Chrysostomos (Tsorlu), and Irineos (Dardanelles)."

The Archbishop of Canterbury replied that he assures them of his "intense anxiety to secure that the Christian peoples and the Holy Orthodox Church of the East should be permanently freed from the Turkish yoke, and says that he has already appealed to the British Government. You may rely on Church of England doing everything possible to aid Your Beatitude and Orthodox Bishops in working for deliverance of oppressed races and renewal of Christianity in the Near East."

Comment: The Archbishop of Canterbury supported the restoration of Aghia Sophia as a Christian Church. He likely raised the issue with the British Government but his concerns were ignored. During the second part of the conference, General George Milne in Constantinople sent a telegram on March 31 to the War Office in London stating that if the Turks received bad peace terms, preparations were to be made to destroy Aghia Sophia. He suggested that "its security be made one of the conditions of peace, as I take no responsibility for its safety."

His telegram was discussed at the conference. The British delegate, Robert Vansittart hand no problem inserting a special clause in the peace treaty regarding Aghia Sophia whereas Paul Cambon, the French representative, argued that the "only remedy is occupation by Allied troops." A British officer, Captain Abraham suggested "the mosque could be protected by Indian Muslim troops."

In the end, the conference decided that there was no need to insert a special clause into the future Treaty of Sevres signed on August 10, 1920.


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