Celal Bey's wife Rukia.
At the beginning of World War I, Celal was governor of Aleppo. When deportations of Armenians began, Celal believed that these were temporary measures taken as the result of wartime exigencies. “I never imagined that any government could take upon itself to annihilate its own citizens in this manner, in effect destroying its human capital, which must be seen as the country's greatest treasure,” he wrote in his memoirs. Having been so mislead, he even requested “the allocation of funds to construct houses to settle Armenians” in a telegram.
It took little time for Celal to realize that the deportations were meant to exterminate Armenians.
He didn’t merely “soften” the harsh orders: he was willing to take serious risks to try to stop the killings. He refused to deport the Armenians of Antioch and tried to save some close friends. Celal arranged for Members of Parliament Krikor Zohrab and Vartkes Serengulian, who were sent to Diyarbekir for trial by the court martial, to stay in Aleppo. “I could not send them to death with my own hands… I wrote to Istanbul asking that they be allowed to stay in Aleppo. I didn’t receive any answer. But I promised them that I will not let them go while I'm in Aleppo and I kept my word,” he recalls in his memoirs. Zohrab and Vartkes were dispatched after Celal left and were murdered before they reached their destination.
Celal sent a “secret and personal” letter to Talat, minister of the interior, containing these words: “Working toward the destruction of Armenians will be a loss for the country which will be impossible to compensate for ages. If all our enemies of the world came together and pondered for months the best way to harm us, they could not imagine a greater evil.”
He travelled to Istanbul to convey this view personally, but nobody listened.
Celal shared his concerns about the fate of Armenians and the nature of the orders he received with the U.S. and Italian consuls in Aleppo, with whom he had forged friendships. He asked the diplomats to convey the seriousness of the situation to their governments and to prevent massacres using the influence they had at the Sublime Porte. With the same requests, he appealed to the German consul in Aleppo.
Meanwhile, the local branch of Union and Progress tried to remove Celal by various means. He was presented with charges as serious as “treason of the motherland.” An investigation showed that all accusations were “baseless and false.” Nevertheless, Celal was removed from the Aleppo vilayet shortly afterward.