Tuesday, June 15 marked the 106th anniversary of the beginning of the Assyrian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey committed between 1915 and 1923.
During this period, Assyrians — alongside Greeks and Armenians — were exposed to genocide, in which around 300,000 Assyrians perished. Assyrians call the crime “seyfo,” which means “sword” in their language, as swords were widely used to murder the victims.
Assyrians, also known as Syriacs, are an indigenous Christian people in the Middle East. They have been subject to many massacres and other crimes at the hands of regional governments and communities such as Turkey, Iraq, and Kurds as well as terror groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Related: The Assyrian Genocide
Evgil Türker, the President of Syriac Associations Federation (SÜDEF) and publisher of the newspaper Sabro, said in a recent interview that genocidal attacks against the community began on June 15, 1915 in southeast Turkey, at a place Assyrians call “Tur Abdin,” which means “mountain of the servants” (of God), where they have lived for millennia.
Türker noted that Assyrians want [the Turkish government] to face the genocide and issue an apology. “Facing [history] is significant,” Türker said. “If you don’t face it, you can’t discuss what happened.”
Turkey, however, continues aggressively denying the genocide. One shocking example is the case of a priest of the Diyarbakir Syriac Mother Mary Church, Yusuf Akbulut, who had the courage to talk about the Assyrian Genocide in 2000. When the 1915 Armenian Genocide resolution was approved by the International Relations Committee of the US House of Representatives that year, Akbulut said that Assyrians were also targeted during the genocide for being Christian. The truthful statement led to Akbulut’s persecution at the hands of Turkish police, judiciary system, media and the public.
Akbulut was first detained by police. While in detention, he was forced to speak with journalists and refute his previous statements concerning the genocide. A criminal investigation was then launched against him.
In the indictment against Akbulut, prosecutors demanded his imprisonment from one to three years for “openly inciting the people to hatred and enmity on the bases of differences of religion, race, sect and region.” Akbulut was then tried and acquitted but his persecution and prosecution were a message to all genocide survivors in Turkey: “Know your place and keep silent.”
No matter how hard the Turkish government seeks to conceal truths and rewrite history, historical facts regarding Assyrians and other Christians in the region are well-documented. Assyrians, a native people of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, were exposed to several massacres at the hands of Muslims for centuries.
Historians record that the first massacre of Assyrians in modern times took place in the 1840s in northern Mesopotamia. Professor Hannibal Travis writes:
The Ottoman Turks allowed the Assyrians to be massacred by the Kurdish chieftain Badr Khan Bey, who summoned the surrounding Muslim population to a “Holy War,” killing 10,000 Assyrians, enslaving many women and children, and ravaging villages. Turkish soldiers and their Kurdish allies murdered the Christians of half a dozen Mesopotamian Christian villages; the surviving women and children were kidnapped and enslaved. Slavery was a common fate of Ottoman Christians in the nineteenth century.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II had created an irregular force of pro-government Kurdish horsemen called the Hamidiye. The Hamidiye massacred and made refugees of the restive Assyrian and Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire, as the contemporary Arab Janjaweed in Sudan have done to the indigenous Africans in Darfur. Famine, ravaged towns and villages, and extermination of the Christian population were the legacies of the Hamidiye horsemen. The Kurds organized into the Hamidiye “received assurances that they [would] not be called to answer before the tribunals for any acts of oppression committed against Christians.”
Ottoman forces killed tens of thousands of defenseless Christians in the capital, Constantinople, and in the “provincial towns of the Empire.” In 1895, the French vice-consul for the southeastern Anatolian city of Diyarbekir reported a campaign of terror against the Armenians and Assyrians. His description reminds us of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany: hundreds of Christians were murdered, hundreds of Christian homes ransacked, and hundreds of Christian-owned shops looted and burned. In nearby Urfa, the Edessa of Christian learning, the pogrom launched by the Sultan led to the massacre of 3,000 women and children inside the city's cathedral.
The French ambassador, Paul Cambon, wrote that Asia Minor was “literally in flames,” with “massacres everywhere” and Kurds and other Muslims “massacring all Christians without distinction.” A French vice-consul wrote to the French ambassador to Constantinople that the Ottoman government had, “for the last few years, been pursuing its goal of gradually annihilating the Christian element” by “giving the Kurdish chieftains carte blanche to do whatever they please, to enrich themselves at the Christians' expense and to satisfy their men's whims.” The Hamidiye, the vice-consul declaimed, was “a band of official highway robbers spreading terror throughout this vilayet [province or administrative division] and many others.” The “impunity they enjoy for the crimes they commit every day” was “ample proof” of an Ottoman policy of annihilating the Christians of the Empire.
Persecution against Assyrians and other Christians culminated in the 1915-23 genocide. “Ottoman soldiers and their Kurdish and Persian militia partners subjected hundreds of thousands of Assyrians to a deliberate and systematic campaign of massacre, torture, abduction, deportation, impoverishment, and cultural and ethnic destruction,” writes Professor Travis.
Assyrians continued to be targeted by Turkey even after the genocide. The Treaty of Lausanne, the final treaty concluding the World War I, was signed in 1923 and came into force a year later. It recognized the boundaries of Turkey and granted some rights to religious minorities -- except for Assyrians. According to Minority Rights Group International,
Turkey has restricted the scope of the Treaty of Lausanne to Armenians, Jews and Rums [Greeks]. This has unlawfully left other non-Muslims, including Assyrians, outside the protection of the Treaty. Assyrians have been particularly vocal in pointing out their unlawful exclusion and demanding the recognition of their rights under the Treaty. Because of this exclusion, they do not have the right to education in their mother tongue, something that many Assyrians wish to pursue. They also do not have the right to set up their own schools, enjoyed (albeit with state restrictions) by other minorities.
A year after the signing of the Lausanne Treaty, Assyrians in the region of Hakkari in southeast Turkey were exposed to yet another massacre in 1924 and 1925. “Despicable acts, such as massacres, rape and looting,” were committed against Assyrians, writes Dr Racho Donef.
Despite the severe persecution they have for centuries been subject to, many Assyrians have largely preserved their ancient culture. To this day, Assyrians speak a version of the language of Jesus, Aramaic. “Aramaic was a broader family of languages,” said Nicholas Al-Jeloo, a prominent expert of Assyrian and Middle East history. “Jesus spoke Galilean Aramaic and Assyrians speak Assyrian Aramaic.”
This ancient language, however, is still not officially recognized by Turkey. The Assyrian community is still struggling to open its first primary school in Istanbul with no support from the government.
Assyrians then became the victims of the escalating conflicts between the Turkish army and the PKK. Minority Rights Group International reports that Assyrians “were also caught up in the conflict between the Turkish armed forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) during 1984-99. They suffered forced evictions, mass displacement and the burning down of their homes and villages. Internally displaced people (IDPs) were not offered adequate compensation or provided with alternative housing. The displaced were not allowed to return to their homes until 1999.
In June 1994, the Assyrian Democratic Organization and Human Rights Without Frontiers issued a joint file at a press conference at the Belgian Parliament that listed 200 Assyrian villages destroyed in Turkey in the previous 30 years and a list of 24 Assyrians assassinated in Turkey since 1990.
During the 1990s, reports by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations documented the ongoing persecution of Assyrians in Turkey, including abductions (including of priests), forced conversions to Islam through rape and forced marriage, and murders.
These pressures, and other more insidious forms of discrimination, have decimated the community.”
Many Assyrians in southeast Turkey had to leave their ancestral homeland during that period. Their lands and properties were seized by Kurdish locals. But starting in early 2000, some members of the Assyrian diaspora returned to their ancestral villages and towns in the region -- only to be targeted by the Turkish government once again.
In April, for instance, the Assyrian priest Sefer Aho Bileçen was sentenced to 2 years and 1 month in prison for “aiding a terrorist organization” in the city of Mardin in southeast Turkey. According to the indictment, the so-called "evidence" is "sharing his food with some PKK members." Bileçen was arrested on January 10 of last year and released four days later. Despite being dedicated to a monastic life in the Mor Yakup Church (Church of Saint Jacob in Nisibis), the priest was then indicted on January 16 for "membership in a terror organization.”
On January 11 of last year, an elderly Assyrian Christian couple, Hurmuz Diril (71) and his wife Şimoni (65), went missing in the Assyrian village of Mehr, Kovankaya in the province of Sirnak in southeast Turkey.
Şimoni was found lifeless by her children 70 days later in a river near her home in the village. The murderers have still not been found by the government authorities even after a year and a half since the kidnapping. Hurmuz is still missing. The Diril family says that there has been no effective search by the government to find him or his remains. A confidentiality order was also imposed on the investigation file.
The forced disappearance of the Diril couple appears to give the Assyrian people one message: “Do not return to your lands.” And it is the most explicit indication that the Assyrian genocide is still ongoing in Turkey today.