The twentieth century opened with a catastrophe which traumatized Christians in the eastern Mediterranean region, and which was an ominous portent of things to come later that century. The ailing Ottoman Empire found itself caught up in the Great War, and began to fragment following a series of rebellions against Ottoman rule in the Middle East and beyond. The Ottoman Empire was a predominantly Islamic region, which was home to a significant number of non-Islamic peoples, including Armenian Christians. The Armenian people had adopted the Christian faith in 301, and regarded themselves as the oldest Christian nation in the region. In 1915, a series of massacres and forced deportations claimed the lives of between 1 million and 1.5 million Armenians – an event now referred to as the “Armenian Genocide.”
The events of 1915 did not come entirely as a bolt from the blue. There had been a series of massacres of Armenian Christians in many Turkish cities during the period 1895–7, in which about 200 000 people are thought to have died. While the massacres of April 1915 were directed against non-Islamic religious minorities in general, rather than against Christians in particular, the people most severely affected were the Armenians. These events took place deep within the Ottoman Empire, under wartime conditions which made communication and intervention virtually impossible. Nothing could be done to stop the killings.
A month later, the governments of France, Great Britain, and Russia issued a declaration denouncing the massacres as “crimes against humanity and civilization,” for which the entire Turkish government would be held responsible. The draft peace treaty with Turkey known as the “Treaty of Sèvres” contained a specific provision by which the Turkish government undertook to hand over to the Allied powers the persons respon- sible for the massacres committed during the war on Turkish territory. However, the Treaty of Sèvres was not formally ratified and never came into force. It was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which did not contain any provisions respecting the punishment of war crimes.