The Great Loss of the Armenian Clergy During the Armenian Genocide – Bishop Nerses Tanielian
By Archbishop Papken Tcharian
The series of articles, which will be presented to our readers, are written by Archbishop Papken Tcharian, and translated by Tamar Topjian Der-Ohannessian.
The book, “The Great Loss of the Armenian Clergy during the Armenian Genocide” was published in 2009, by the generous donation of Mr. and Mrs. Levon and Tamar Der-Ohannessian.
The articles which will be featured in the coming days, are from the doctoral thesis of Archbishop Tcharian, and it is dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide.
In his thesis, Tcharian writes, “The enemy, in his cruelty, ruthless and unjust, did not discriminate. He slaughtered the students of Maghakia Ormanian, Yeghishe Tourian and Mekhitar Sepasdatsi, the promising seminarians of Armash and St. Ghazar, who were the true intellectual clergymen, and who shared the fate of their people and their parishes.”
“The catastrophe of April 1915 was a fatal gash in the heart of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Despite of it all, however, the Armenian people and the Armenian Church experienced a new renaissance. … We do not hesitate to call all those clergymen who were massacred during the Genocide of April 1915 martyrs and saints.”
Bishop Nerses Tanielian was born on May 16th 1868 in Yarpouz (Zeytoun). His baptismal name was Kevork. In 1883 he enrolled in the seminary of the monastery of Sis. In 1886 he enrolled in National Sahagian School in Samatia (Constantinople) for higher education. After three years he completed his education and was invited to Adana as a teacher.
He was ordained celibate priest in 1890 by Bishop Megerditch Vehabedian. Later, he was elected diocesan vicar to the diocese of Iskenderoun and stayed there until 1895.
In 1896 he was imprisoned by the Turkish government for seven months in Aleppo, together with his spiritual father, Bishop Megerditch Vehabedian, charged with being the leader of the uprising in Zeytoun. He was released thanks to some very influential interventions but was exiled from Iskenderoun to Damascus.
In 1889, with the intervention of Arch. Maghakia Ormanian, the patriarch of Constantinople, he returned to Constantinople and became the personal secretary of the patriarch. At the same time, he was appointed preacher of St. Garabed (Forerunner) Church in Sgudar where he served for ten years. In Constantinople, too, V. Rev. Fr. Nerses was under surveillance. The government watched his every move.
In 1905, after the explosion of the bomb in Yeldez, he was arrested three times by the government, but he was set free thanks to the intervention of Patriarch Ormanian.
In his book, ‘Koghkota Turkahay Hokevoraganoutian’ (Golgotha of the Turkish-Armenian Clergy) Teotig gave the following account:
…One day, on his way to the patriarchate, he was arrested on the incline of Gedig Pasha. Like Zohrab and Chifté Sarraf, he was led to Yeldez and was subjected to harsh interrogation. The intercession from the patriarchate could only just reduce the deceitful accusations against his person.
In 1907, after the powerful intercession of the Catholicos of Cilicia, Sahag Khabayan, and the patriarch of Constantinople, Bishop Maghakia Ormanian, the government allowed V. Rev. Fr. Nerses to go to Sis and take charge of his responsibilities as dean in Sis.
He was elected prelate for Hajen in 1909. In the spring of the same year the massacres of Cilicia started. V. Rev. Fr. Nerses became the organizer of the uprising in Hajen.
After the declaration of the Ottoman Constitution, the Armenians got their freedom. The Armenian population of Cilicia gradually increased, with Armenians moving there from various regions. The economy improved and that was especially noticeable in the case of the Armenians in Adana. The Turkish government did not appreciate this. On the contrary, it feared that the Armenians of Cilicia could one day revolt and become a threat. And this was the reason for planning to disseminate the power of the Armenians of Cilicia.
On April 1st 1909 the killings started in Adana. More than 30,000 Armenians were massacred in fifteen days. News of this tragedy in Adana quickly reached Hajen. V. Rev. Fr. Nerses received a telegram which described the events in Adana. The prelate quickly called for a meeting with the members of the national leadership to examine the situation and to prepare accordingly for self-defense. During that time a letter came to Hajen from Catholicos Sahag of Cilicia, by messengers returning from Sis. In the letter Catholicos Sahag wrote about the massacre and looting in Adana, especially about the condition of the Catholicosate of Sis. He requested for a hundred armed men from Zeytoun and Hajen to get there immediately to save the city from total destruction.
- Rev. Fr. Nerses immediately sent a telegram to Catholicos Sahag of Cilicia, where he said: “We have already sent five hundred men from Hajen to Sis to help out, until the reinforcements arrive from Zeytoun.” This letter was the reason tragedy was averted in the city of Sis, because it was intercepted by the Mutasarref, before it got to the Catholicos. The former immediately went to see His Holiness, and pleaded for them to come to an understanding to defend Sis and its surrounding areas with a united Armenian-Turkish force.
The national leadership, presided by V. Rev. Fr. Nerses, convened in St. Kevork (George) Church of Hajen, and formed a committee to organize the self-defense. V. Rev. Fr. Nerses was one of the advisors of the committee, and was thus accused of being the leader of the uprising in Hajen. Although he had saved four hundred Muslims from death, he was nevertheless prosecuted by the military court of Erzen and was jailed for three-and-a-half months.
Teotig has given us the following account about this event:
…The fires all around had not died yet. For one hundred days V. Rev. Fr. Nerses was taken from one jail to the other and from one court to the next, in Marash and Erzen, allegedly as the organizer of the self-defense in Hajen.
In his article, ‘Gakhaghanin Sdvere’ (The Shadow of the Gallows), V. Rev. Fr. Nerses described the most unfortunate and dismal days of his life:
…After the massacre, military courts were set up in Adana, Antioch, Erzen and Marash, and strict orders were given to arrest and punish the violent criminals. However, all the Armenians who had resorted to self-defense and had committed the crime of not having been killed were considered criminals too. They arrested me also for a sermon I had given a long time ago in Marash. In June 1909 I was being taken from Hajen on a 4-day long trip, accompanied by mounted policemen. The nature smiled around me, while I was feeling the weight of the black pole of the gallows on my shoulders. The military commander of Hajen had given strict orders to the commander of Gogisson to be very vigilant while taking me through the narrow gorges of Zeytoun and Frounz, just in case Armenian mountaineers tried to rescue me from the policemen. We started our ascent through the deep valleys of the previous day. Cramps were gnawing at my intestines like snakes. Oh! That steep and rocky ascent was the worst suffering in the Golgotha of my life. But I walked without complaint, because that was also the fate of my suffering people, yesterday, today and would most probably be so forever.
After three months he was set free thanks to the powerful mediation of Catholicos Sahag of Cilicia. Here is what Catholicos Sahag wrote to the authorities of the day: “If those two religious leaders are rebels or instigators, then I too am a leader of rebellion. Therefore, I too should be stripped of the Sultan’s mandate and should be prosecuted as a revolutionary…”
After being set free in 1910, V. Rev. Fr. Nerses was elected prelate to the diocese of Adana. It is documented in the ‘Adanayi Hayots Badmoutiun’ (History of the Armenians of Adana) that V. Rev. Fr. Nerses was sent to Adana by Catholicos Sahag as the catholicosal vicar.
In the fall of 1910, Catholicos Sahag sent V. Rev. Fr. Nerses Tanielian to Adana as a catholicossal vicar. And in May 1911 V. Rev. Fr. Shahé Kasbarian was elected prelate of Adana by the Representative Assembly, receiving 38 votes out of 42.
- Rev. Fr. Nerses had an active life in Adana. He especially revived the rebuilding activity.
In the book ‘Adanayi Hayots Badmoutiun’ (History of the Armenians of Adana), there is a description of how one day V. Rev. Fr. Nerses criticized the mayor of Adana, the Roumeltsi Tsigan Mouammer, for his injustice.
… During the time of ‘hurriet’ (Freedom) the leader of a group of Cherkezes on the Caucasus front was a thieving, bloodthirsty and vicious character. V. Rev. Fr. Nerses, unable to tolerate the injustice in the treatment of property and other judicial issues, criticized him openly during a meeting. One day, the vali told the chancellor of the prelacy: “Give my advice to your religious leader. His, as well as my positions require that rather than speak in harsh and severe tones on every issue, he should talk softly and talk little. Otherwise consequences can be very detrimental…”
When the prelate heard this, he replied in the following manner: “… Our Lord’s message is: “Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ be no.’”
During 1911 he was ordained bishop by the Catholicos of Cilicia, Sahag II Khabayian. The weekly “Dadjar” wrote that Bishop Nerses Tanielian went to Beirut to be treated for health issues and was elected prelate of Aleppo.
In 1914, he was elected prelate to the diocese of Yozghat and went to his office in the fall. In fact, this time, the voice of responsibility was calling him from the diocese of Yozghat to assume the leadership of a more responsible position.
Having learned from past experience, Bishop Nerses wanted to have a recommendation, a written document announcing and sponsoring his position, so that he could go safely to his job in Yozghat. He appealed to his dear friend living in Pera, hoping to obtain such a recommendation from the Naval Minister, Djemal Pasha (the previous mayor of Adana). But he was refused. “How do you expect me to give a recommendation to a priest who used weapons against us in Hajen?”
In October of the same year, 1914, all the youth of military age, 18-45, were rounded up allegedly to defend the Ottoman fatherland.
During April 11th – 24th 1915 all the intellectuals, leaders and persons active in the community had already been arrested. The Turkish government appointed new governors in all the provinces and its first priority was to prevent all communication between the villages and cities.
In May of 1915 the government started to implement its premeditated and organized plan. First of all, it gave orders to gather all the guns of the Armenians in Yozghat, allegedly for the internal security of the country.
The following documentary letter written by the parish to Bishop Nerses Tanielian shows a clear picture regarding this issue:
Medz Chat, May 1915
His Grace, Bishop Nerses Tanielian
Prelate of the Diocese of Yozghat
We feel obliged to present to you the precarious situation of our village and await anxiously for a directive from your Grace.
In compliace with the latest orders from the government, seven policemen came to our village yesterday, and brought a letter from the kaymakam (lieutenant-governor) of Boghazliyan, Kemal Bey – dated April 30th 1915 – whereby they demand all the guns in the village in the coming two days.
This command, according to the letter from the kaymakam, is supposed to have been sent to all the provinces in Turkey, and in case any weapons are not surrendered, the renegades will be punished by the death penalty.
In order to decide on what position to take regarding the mentioned manifesto, we ask your advice and we wait earnestly for your response.
The prelate of the diocese of Yozghat, Bishop Nerses Tanielian felt that the military draft and the repossession of weapons was a means for humiliating the Armenians and rendering them powerless. However, he could not envision the full scope of extermination.
So, he wrote the following as a response to that letter:
My Dear and Blessed Children of the Village Council of the village of Chat,
I received your letter, which I hasten to respond to. The letter of Chat brought anguish to my heart and tears to my eyes. My children, I understand your situation very well, but what can we do? This is the fate of our nation. I curse the cause of your misery and I bestow upon you the comfort and assistance of our Lord Jesus Christ.
My beloved children, surely this storm will also pass. Remain hopeful and brave, and do not be confused. Relinquish your weapons as per the orders, in order to have obeyed the law.
I sadly wish you patience and unity.
I remain prayerfully,
Bishop Nerses Tanielian.
In accordance with the telegram sent by the patriarch of Constantinople, Arch. Zaven Yeghiayan, whereby he advised obeying the orders of the Turkish government, the prelate immediately had the instructions of the patriarch read in all the churches, complying with the decision of the National Assembly of Yozghat, and recommended giving up the weapons just to have obeyed the law.
Despite these instructions, the fearless youth of Yozghat of both sexes did not give up their weapons. Experienced elders tried persuading them to tone down their position. But the youth armed themselves and went to the mountains for self-defense, maintaining that giving up arms would mean letting the Turks realize their plan of exterminating the Armenians.
They fought for a long time on the mountains; they struggled and stopped the enemy from advancing. But, after some time their resistance weakened due to lack of ammunition, bread and water.
Despite all this, the people prayed. Mothers did not want to surrender. They said, “We must die rather than surrender.” Many committed suicide to avoid being captured by the enemy.
During July 23rd-26th 1915, a group of policemen entered the prelacy of Yozghat and viciously arrested the prelate, Bishop Nerses Tanielian. They also arrested the assemblymen as well as the renowned intellectuals, teachers, doctors, priests, merchants and all those who were considered dangerous for the internal safety of the country and might pose a threat in the future.
Here is the secret telegram of the lieutenant governor-general of Ankara, Atef Bey, sent to the governor of Yozghat, Jemal Bey:
“Translated from Turkish written in Armenian characters.
To the Mutesari of Yozghat.
To Jemal Bey.
From among the Armenians living in your province, the presence of all those belonging to committees, or all those thought to be so, especially teachers, pharmacists, doctors, clergymen, merchants, lawyers and those who spread revolutionary ideals is detrimental and dangerous for the present security and future liberation of the country. So, please have all these individuals arrested and sent under supervision to Zor, which is especially allocated to such people. It is only proper that during their transportation their possessions and honor be safeguarded.
Please let us know the results.
18 July 1915
Lieutenant Governor-General of Ankara
According to Teotig,
Bishop Nerses stayed for four days in that house of torture, filled with hundreds of Armenians. Then they made him join a group of 482 people, consisting of clergymen, teachers and well-known merchants. This was the first male crowd which Jemal Pasha was inadvertently sending to the executioner, Muammer. The bishop, as an exception, rode in a carriage. During the trip, brutality broke out starting with looting. Here is a quote from the superintendent of the orphanages, Shevken: “You ordered us to take nothing with us, so, I have no money with me.” The caravan arrived in Sepasdia with the exception of one person: the prelate. According to a report by a witness who had barely escaped the massacre (he had actually seen the tattered clothes of the victim), they singled out Bishop Nerses from the group and leading him under a tree instructed him to get ready to die. He knelt and prayed and while he directed his pleas to heaven, he was riddled with bullets and fell lifeless to the ground. He, too, joined the fold of the beatific Armenian clergy, who, after being martyred, remained unburied in the ravines and along the roads.
We read in ‘Houshamadian Medz Yegherni’ (Commemorative Book of the Great Catastrophe), about the martyrdom of Bishop Nerses Tanielian, where we find some discrepancies. This is how the martyrdom is described:
On July 25th 1915, the prelate of Yozghat, Bishop Nerses Tanielian, along with intellectuals and merchants (five hundred in number) were arrested. On a Saturday morning, after keeping them in prison for one night, they tied them up together, in groups of four or five, using thin laurel branches or ropes, and sent them on their way to be tortured about two hours away from town. About one hundred policemen accompanied the deportees to previously dug ditches where they were to be slaughtered. When he found out what was happening, Bishop Nerses asked for permission to say a prayer.
He had barely finished praying, when a policeman came running towards the caravan with a flag in his hand. He was waving the flag saying “Stop! Don’t do it.” The policeman brought the governor’s message ordering the chief-of-police accompanying the caravan: “Do not kill the prisoners. Take them to Sepasdia.”
This order had been issued by the governors of Yozghat, Jemal and Salim Beys, and it extended their lives by a few days. They had actually arrived in Sepasdia alive, but according to eye-witnesses, they were killed in a place known as Tashledere, in the valleys of Kardashla, near Sepasdia. The houses of their relatives in Yozghat had been subjected to thorough inspection and looting.
We can get more credible information from ‘Yozghati Hayasbanoutian Vaverakragan Badmoutiune’ (The Documented History of the Massacre of the Armenians of Yozghat). The author of the book, Kriger, presents some letters and pronouncements which he has taken from the Chancery of Jerusalem, and which have great value.
Thus, we read that “On Monday, July 26th 1915, complying with an order from the governor of Yozghat, Jemal Bey, the first caravan of the Armenians of Yozghat set out by way of the Yozghat-Zelé route. The prelate of Yozghat, Bishop Nerses Tanielian, seven priests, fifteen teachers, intellectuals, doctors, merchants and the prominent Armenians of Yozghat were in this caravan…
The colonel of Yozghat, Salim Bey, immediately informed his superior, the brigadier-general of the Fifteenth Brigade of Gessaria, Shahabeddin Bey. The latter passed on news of the departure of the first caravan of Armenians to the commander of the Fifth Army Division, Mirala Khalil Reja Bey.
Here is the proclamation in full:
Translated from Turkish written in Armenian characters.
To the lieutenant of the Fifth Army Division,
I am honored to inform you that as per the instructions of the president of the conscription office of Yozghat, the first caravan consisting of 472 Armenians along with the prelate, priests and prominent citizens set off yesterday before noon by the Yozghad-Zele road in a cheerful atmosphere.
July 27, 1915
Lieutenant of the Fifteenth Army Division,
According to Colonel Salim Bey of Yozghat, there was an attempt to exterminate this caravan before it had even left the border of the province of Yozghat, in a barn near the village of Beg Yourdou. Salim Bey said: “When we heard this, we immediately sent the deputy of the armed forces, Jevad Effendi; we commissioned him to lead the caravan to Sepasdia and to recall Captain Tevfiz Effendi. Thus, we could avert the crime and the caravan made it safely to Sepasdia.”
Upon a command from the governor of Sepasdia, Mouammer Bey, and the clerk in charge, Ghani Bey, the 472 notable Armenians from Yozghat, along with their prelate, Bishop Nerses Tanielian, were martyred in the valley of Kardashlar, four hours away from Sepasdia, and their bodies were thrown in the river.
In the documents of the Turkish War Tribunal gathered from various regions, there are details which give additional information about the actual accounts of the massacre, slaughter and looting of the Armenians.
On February 4th 1919, the president of the Turkish War Tribunal demanded from the gubernatorial leadership of Yozghat any information they had on the murder of Bishop Nerses Tanielian, and the theft of the episcopal ring.
Translated from Turkish written in Armenian characters.
To the government of Yozghat,
The telegram of February 4th 1919 and numbered 74, was handed over as deemed proper. …Where was the prelate killed and exterminated? How did his ring end up with the director of Evkaf, Feyaz Bey…?
President of the War Tribunal.
On March 1st 1919, the president of the Turkish War Tribunal demanded a report from the governor of Yozghat about the ring of the prelate of Yozghat, Bishop Nerses Tanielian, to find out who had removed it from his finger and how much it had sold for.
Below is the letter:
Translated from Turkish written in Armenian characters.
To the government of Yozghat,
Please conduct an investigation and inform us about who removed it from the prelate’s finger and gave it to the Auctioning Committee. What was the date on which the Committee met? After appraising it when was it sold by auction for the first time? Certainly this must have been documented properly in the records of the auction.
Inform us about the result of your investigation.
March 1st 1919
President of the War Tribunal of Deportation.
Finally, on March 3rd 1919, the governor of Yozghat sent a report in resposnse to the letters of the president of the War Tribunal, where he gave the result of the investigations:
Translated from Turkish written in Armenian characters.
To the president of the War Tribunal of Deportations of the Capital,
Response to the March 1st 1919 telegram number 233.
The prelate’s ring was sold for two thousand, three hundred and fifty tahegans (piasters) under the patronage of Feyaz Bey, during the auction organized by the Auctioning Committee. This was evident from the results of the conducted investigation.
March 3rd 1919.
However, on February 8th 1919, an Armenian by the name of Azniv gave the following testimony to the Turkish War Tribunal: “They rounded up the men on a Friday. We saw that their hands were shackled together in groups of four. Feyaz and the commisaire’s aide were present. Feyaz took the ring from the prelate’s (Bishop Nerses Tanielian) hand. The people started crying along with the prelate, because they knew everything was over. They sent them away on foot, and dispersed us with a whip…”
Bishop Nerses Tanielian was a writer and despite the crises in his life, he never gave up writing. In the privacy of his Sgudar residence, he collaborated with all the newspapers of Constantinople and Izmir, writing poetry and religious and moral articles with the alias ‘Ssagan Vartabed’.
LIST OF LITERARY WORKS –
- ‘Gianke Arants Havadki’ (Life without Faith), a book of sermons, printed in Vienna, 1903.
- ‘Gatil me Chour Ayradz Srderoun’ (A Drop of Water for Parched Hearts), full of poignant memories. Printed in Constantinople, 1912.
- ‘Veshdi Keghetzgoutiune’ (The Beauty of Sorrow), a sermon written in Adana.
- ‘Dadjarner’ (Temples), poems written on February 12, 1911, in Adana.
- ‘Amanosi Sareren’ (From the Mountains of Amanos), a sermon written in memory of the martyrs.
- ‘Martgoutian Medz Paregamin Sere’ (The Love of the Great Friend of Humanity), a sermon.
- ‘Ariunakar Mashdotse’ (The Blood-stained Rock of Mashdots), an editorial.
- ‘Nayvadzket, Der’ (Your Gaze, Lord), poetry.
- ‘Gaghantcheki Nverner Hay Kahananeroun’, (Christmas Gifts for the Armenian Priests), an editorial sermon.
- ‘Nayeni Badanin’ (The Young Man of Nain), poetry written in Sgudar.
- ‘Arants Kezi’ (Without You), poetry.
- ‘Havadk, Houys, Ser’ (Faith, Hope, Love), poetry.
- ‘Nor Martn Ee Krisdos’ (The New Man in Christ), sermon.
- ‘Kezi Hamar’ (For You), poetry.
- ‘Lousavore Mesourin’ (The Bright One in the Manger), poem.
- ‘Dzaravi Yem’ (I Am Thirsty), poem.
- ‘Hanteb Dzovin’ (In Front of the See), poem.
- ‘Havadki Veshdin Mech’ (In the Sorrow of Faith), written in memory of a deceased.
- ‘Gianke Arants Houysi yev Arants Siro’ (Life Without Hope and Without Love).
- ‘Gatoghigosoutiun Hayots Giligio’ (Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia).
- ‘Giligio Hayots Kavaraparpare’ (The Dialect of the Armenians of Cilicia).
- ‘Ariunod Dzerar’ (Bloodied Parcel).
- ‘Serdi Spopank’ (Relief for the Heart).
- ‘Verchin Levoni Voghperke’ (The Lament of the Last Levon).