A Century On, Syriacs Commemorate Once Forgotten Genocide

This article will appear in an upcoming special edition of Gazete Sabro on the Sayfo Genocide. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.

By Ayla Jean Yackley

Syriac Christians living in Turkey will commemorate the century-old massacre of their forebears on June 15 with quiet prayer in centuries-old churches, one of the tentative steps taken in recent years towards recognition and remembrance of a long-overlooked tragedy.

Memorialised as Sayfo, or the Sword in the Syriac language, the killing and deportation of as many as 300,000 Syriac, or about half of the population, by Ottoman forces beginning in late 1914 is among the darkest chapters of World War One. Yet much of the world has largely forgotten what most historians say was a genocide that nearly spelled the end of one of the world’s oldest Christian communities in their ancient homeland.

“Although there was awareness of these massacres at the time, it is only recently that the issue of international recognition of this crime has become an important human rights and political issue,” said David Gaunt, a history professor at Södertörn University College in Stockholm who has written extensively about the genocide. “There was a conscious suppression of discussion internally among some within the Assyrian community, but the lack of knowledge was basically international.”

Several factors conspired to shield this painful episode from scrutiny. Violence against Syriac varied in intensity across the region and occurred mostly in remote corners of the countryside, out of the eye of Western observers. Syriacs have long defied a simple category, subscribing to different denominations of the Christian faith and identifying under multiple names: Syriac (Aramean, Assyrian).

The Syriac Orthodox Church, struggling to survive its native lands after the exile of its patriarch to Syria in 1925, did not pursue political recognition of the killings for decades, and a civil society that could have taken up the cause was largely wiped out during the war.

The absence of an independent Assyrian homeland has both strengthened ties to Turkish lands, but has also thwarted Syriac from crafting a unified activism and narrative to convey their history, said Tuma Celik, an opposition lawmaker in Turkey who is Syriac.

The plight of Syriac has also been overshadowed by contemporaneous violence against other Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Far more attention has been devoted to the larger-scale genocide of up to 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians.

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks living on the Black Sea were killed in what is widely considered ethnic cleansing, and another 1.5 million Greeks were expelled in a “population exchange” with Greece in 1923. Other non-Muslim subjects were also targeted, including Yazidis, who follow a syncretic faith distinct from Islam and Christianity.

“One of the most paradoxical aspects of victimhood is that recognition is not related to the catastrophe’s severity nor size as much as it is to the strength and influence of the group demanding it. This is why a hierarchy of recognition has developed among victims of almost all genocides, and the reason why what happened to Syriacs in 1915 is less known – and what happened to Yazidis is hardly memorialized at all,” said Yektan Turkyilmaz, a fellow at Forum Transregionale Studien at Freie Universitat in Berlin, who studies collective violence and reconciliation.

“Victims also need to consider themselves as such, yet some Syriacs never have. Some view themselves as the vanquished in a war,” he said.

The violence against Syriac, Armenians and Greeks slashed the Christian population of Anatolia from 20 percent to 2 percent. Today, non-Muslims number fewer than 150,000 in a population of 83 million people. Turkey denies any genocide was committed on its soil.

“The genocide by the Ottoman Empire was against all Christians in 1915, both in the decision to do it and its implementation. There was no discrimination. In many villages where there were was not a single Armenian, the genocide does not differ from what was committed elsewhere,” Celik said.

For decades, historians treated the campaigns against Syriac, Armenians and Greeks as discrete events. Now scholars are increasingly considering a broader framework that views the violence as fundamentally linked, belonging to the same project that was undertaken by both the Islamic empire and the nationalist republic built on its ashes in 1923, which used less overtly violent pressure to force Christians to abandon the hinterland. These scholars also point to the consistency in methods employed against different groups: the arrest of intellectuals, deportations, abductions, forced conversion and mass killings.

While approaching the campaigns as a whole may help to elevate awareness about the devastation Syriac faced, it presents challenges for scholars unable to access Ottoman archival materials that might show a conclusive link, Gaunt said. “Many of the papers having to do with this have disappeared … The Turks in their government only talked about Armenians. They definitely had an Armenian policy, but they never said they had an Syriac policy, even though these killings were happening to Syriac.”

Turkyilmaz also warned against overgeneralizing the killings. “A great mistake would be to view these events as completely unrelated. They are not. But nuance is required to understand their links. We cannot put them all into the same container and mix time, space and context.”

In 2007, the International Association of Genocide Scholars overwhelmingly agreed the Ottoman campaign constituted a genocide against Armenians, Syriac and Greeks.

Political recognition has also intensified over the last decade. Parliaments in a half-dozen countries and a handful of U.S. states have deemed the killings of Syriac as a genocide. The European Syriac Union is currently lobbying the European Parliament to commemorate the genocide every June 15.

This still lags the widespread acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide, which has been recognized in some 30 countries after a century of strong organising efforts by a far larger diaspora. Even the Syriac Orthodox Church in Damascus only proclaimed June 15 as the genocide’s Remembrance Day in 2015.

Among Syriacs themselves, recognition they shared a collective trauma began in earnest once they began immigrating in the 1970s to Europe, where they felt less constrained to discuss the crimes committed against their elders.

“Beginning in the 1990s, Syriacs began to openly articulate the genocide. Before that, they shared their stories with each other, but were hesitant to discuss it publically. Then, with the establishment of their own networks in Europe, they became more explicit. Naturally, it spawned a serious debate about whether this would harm Syriacs” back home, said Celik, who moved to Switzerland as a child.

In Turkey, discussion of the tragedy remains checked. Celik’s party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party whose base is largely Kurdish, is the only major political group to recognize genocide was committed against Syriac, as well as Armenians, Greeks and Yazidis. For most in Turkey, a century of denial erased the events from the shared memory long ago.

Fears of retribution for speaking out still haunt Syriacs, who continue to face land appropriations and other forms of pressure, including the arrest of a monk on terrorism charges this year. But the Turkish government has also sought to improve their circumstances, granting Syriacs permission to open a kindergarten and build a church in Istanbul, and laws stymieing debate of historical crimes have eased over the past two decades.

“There is now a significant group of people in Turkey who accept there was a genocide and are working for reconciliation,” said Celik. “For Turkey to have a sound future, it has to confront its past. Reconciliation isn’t important merely for Syriacs, Armenians or Greeks, but essential so that what happened in 1915 never happens here again,” Celik said.

Ayla Jean Yackley is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul