A hand reached out to the rescue of Armenians when the inhuman deportation order was sent from the Union and Progress HQ to the Konya province. That hand belonged to Governor Mehmet Celal Bey (1863-1926).
Mehmet Celal Bey was appointed governor of Erzurum after the establishment of the 2nd Constitutional Era in 1908. After his term at Erzurum, he also served for short periods as governor of Edirne and İzmir. In 1914, when war broke out, he was appointed governor of Aleppo. He vehemently opposed the order for the deportation of the Armenians in Zeitun, then tied to the Aleppo province. He immediately met with Armenian notables to seek a peaceful solution, but his attempts were stifled when Zeitun district was administratively excluded from the borders of the Aleppo province, and an administrator who would implement the deportation directive was appointed to Zeitun.
Celal Bey receives a guarantee
Mehmet Celal Bey was discharged from his position after he opposed the order of deportation. It was considered undesirable for him to return to Istanbul, and he was appointed governor of Konya. However, Mehmet Celal Bey continued to do what he believed to be right, and listen to the voice of his conscience. On the pretext that he needed an eye examination, he travelled to Istanbul and immediately went to the Union and Progress headquarters. It is reported that here, Mehmet Celal Bey persistently told party officials, “If you are sending me to Konya so I deport the Armenians, I cannot do that!”. Governor Celal Bey only set out to Konya after he received a guarantee that the Armenians in the city would not be deported.
‘Their numbers reached 30-40 thousand’
This is how Governor Celal Bey recounted the moment he arrived by train to Konya in an interview in Jamanak newspaper published on 18 November 1918:
“(…) By the time I arrived at my post, the majority of local Armenians had been subjected to deportation. The remaining ones were at the train station, and I immediately secured their return to their homes. The Akşehir and Ilgın areas were not subjected to deportation during my term. However, there was also the problem of Armenian deportees who had arrived in Konya from other regions along their route. Their numbers reached 30-40 thousand at one point. The capital was constantly pressurizing me to send them on, and to exile them. However, I could not breach my conscience.”
A statesman who believed in equality
Mehmet Celal Bey was dismissed from his post in Konya as well because of his strong objection to deportation. Armenians in the region referred to Celal Bey with praise in letters they wrote to relatives abroad, and prayed for him. So much so that, Talaat Pasha discovered such a letter among the possessions of an Armenian youth who was trying to escape abroad from Istanbul, and sharing this information with Celal Bey, said, “Armenians are singing your praise in their letters”. Celal Bey responded: “If you were to see the letters of Turks and Arabs, I have no doubt you would find the same words there.” This brief exchange once again proves that Mehmet Celal Bey was a conscientious statesman who believed in equality.
‘A secret order’
Governor Celal Bey, in his response to the question asked during the abovementioned Jamanak interview whether he had received any ‘secret’ orders, clearly explains the content of the orders, and his reason for opposing deportation, and calls out to Armenians: “The official orders we received were about deportation. But was deportation not also destruction? If detailed investigation perhaps reveals important issues, then we, too, will say what we know. Everything that should not have happened, did. First and foremost, the country collapsed economically and politically. However, I know how the Armenians feel about me; I would like them not to hold all Turks and Muslims responsible of these events. I treated Armenians kindly and I am a Turk, too. Faik Ali Bey, too, is a Turk.
In the same way, those two conscientious district governors, which Diyarbekir governor Dr. Reşid had murdered, were Turks. I knew one of them, he was a highly esteemed young man. They sacrificed themselves in order not to murder Armenians. What virtue is higher? I would hope that the Armenian people does not equate its friends that were by its side during hard times with murderers and traitors. That is my humble request from the Armenian people. Today, I have no official duty, my conscience is clear; I would sincerely like to say in front of the entire world that I served my homeland, I did not allow the murdering of a single Armenian, and I wiped away the tears of many a person fallen on hard times.”
Mehmet Celal Bey died on 15 February 1926 of a heart attack he suffered at his home in Osmanbey, Istanbul, and his funeral ceremony was attended by thousands of Armenian and Turkish citizens.