How Turkey exterminated its Christian minorities

FIGAROVOX / TRIBUNE - Christians still represented 20% of the Turkish population at the start of the 20th century: they are down to 0.2% today. Joseph Yacoub, an expert on the history of Eastern Christians, explains how the Turkish regime has gradually erased the cultural memory of this persecuted minority.

Originally published in French by Le Figaro on 19 November 2020. The original can be found here

By Joseph Yacoub honorary professor of political science at the Catholic University of Lyon. Specialist in minorities in the world and Eastern Christians.

Turkey’s political and military engagement with Azerbaijan against the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) has exposed the past and exposed the seriousness of its (mis)treatment of Christian minorities.

Against the backdrop of recent events, how is the situation of Christian minorities in Turkey compared to those in Armenia?

There was a time when there were still Christian communities in Turkey. That time is gone. Since that time, the story is one of a series of dramatic events (punctuated by episodes of relative calm) some of which have been knowingly eclipsed by official Turkish historiography. Once thriving and prosperous communities, Christians declined dramatically in number and influence. In 16th century Constantinople alone, Christians made up 40% of the population. At the very beginning of the 20th century, their share of the population in current-day Turkey was still estimated at more than 20%.

Today, they number no more than 100,000 people, or less than 0.2% of a population of 84 million. We note that Christian schools are in sharp decline and we observe cases of expropriation of churches and repression against priests, all accentuated by the Islamic-nationalist policy of Turkish President Erdogan who converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

The twentieth century saw political and religious turbulence and convulsions. The Armenian and Assyro-Chaldean genocide of 1915 gradually put an end to Christian presence.

Here is one example, one of many, that has been completely obscured. On the eve of World War I, there were 100,000 Assyrian Christians living in the Hakkari region in the extreme southeastern part of current-day Turkey; today, there is not one left, half were exterminated and died on the roads, the other half was forced into exodus under terrible conditions.

What happened?

From 1906, sparks were the prelude to 1915, which bore 1918 in its germs. The Ottoman-Turkish policy aimed, according to fixed objectives, to homogenize the Ottoman Empire and to Turkify the country by eradicating all ethnically non-Turkish and non-Muslim groups. It was also an ethnocide. Churches have been looted and defiled, old men, women and young people slaughtered. Others died of disease or hunger, or were deported into exile. Young girls abused and enslaved. This tragedy is well represented in the Assyria-Chaldean memory and literature in Aramaic, the language of Christ.

With World War I over, new Kemalist Turkey emerged. More painful episodes would follow.

In a December 1925 report for the Council of the League of Nations, Estonian General Laidoner, tasked with investigating the provisional border line between Turkey and Iraq, referred to what he called the Deportation of Christians. In his report he claimed there were about 3,000 victims, and he incriminated the soldiers of the 62nd Turkish regiment who had committed “atrocious acts of violence going as far as massacres” on the inhabitants.

Everything has been done to erase the memory of the Assyro-Chaldeans

The case of cultural annihilation intensified in subsequent years and decades. The names of Assyro-Chaldean villages were Turkified, as well as patronymic names. Here are the names of villages now completely metamorphosed: Ischy became Ombudak, BazyanDogan, HarbolAksu, MeerKovankaya, and HozAyirim. The same is true of Aramaic family names: Biqasha became Yalap, and BikoumaYabash. Everything was done to erase the memory of the Assyro-Chaldeans. Moreover, these villages were forcibly abandoned, their inhabitants despised, totally neglected, and outlawed with no protection whatsoever against bandits, the Kurdish aghas, and the Turks.

Therefore, we should not be surprised to see Turkey emptied of the remaining survivors of the genocide of 1915. From 1980, deprived of any security by the state and trapped between a rock and a hard place, i.e. between the Turkish army and the Kurdish guerrillas, the Assyro-Chaldeans, who had lived in these lands for 3,000 years, took the path of exile to France and Europe, fleeing repression and miserable living conditions. This mass departure affected several of their home regions.

Welcomed in France (Departments of Val d´Oise and Seine Saint-Denis), they were able through hard work and perseverance, to succeed in a short time. They established a dignified life and occupy important positions. It was in a secular country respectful of all religions that they were able to build churches (in Sarcelles and Arnouville), in accordance with their traditions and rites, and fully live their faith. In exchange, they dedicate love, loyalty, and fidelity to France.

While the Assyro-Chaldeans faced denial and repression by Turkey, the opposite was true for Armenia. During a mission to Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993, as part of a French delegation and at the initiative of the Armenians, we had been, for humanitarian purposes, to Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh. We saw how much the Armenians were attached to this region. It represents a high place in their national identity and their Christian spirituality. On the other hand, during a visit in 2012, with my wife Claire and within the framework of research on the Assyro-Chaldeans, we went to the Assyrian community of Armenia. On this visit we also met with Armenian political leaders. On our return, we wrote down our story in a book: Oubliés de tous: Les Assyro-Chaldéens du Caucase (“Forgotten by all: The Assyro-Chaldeans of the Caucasus”, Ed. Du Cerf, 2015). The book allowed us to observe and appreciate the state of development of the community, and to note that they were well treated and recognized. Moreover, the cultural and fraternal ties between the Assyro-Chaldeans (known as Assori) and the Armenians go back far in history (including intermarriages).

The first Assyrians arrived in Armenia in 1805 from Turkey and Persia, a process which accelerated markedly in 1828 and 1915-1918. It is a predominantly rural population, which makes its living from livestock and agriculture.

Outside the capital Yerevan, they are concentrated mainly in seven villages in particular in Verin Dvin, Arzni, Nor Artagers, and Koïlassar. They have accompanied Armenian independence since 1989, founded associations and schools, opened cultural centers, edited textbooks in Aramaic. However, like many Armenians, some have also chosen the path of exile to the United States, Europe…

The Armenian state officially recognizes the Assyrian genocide of 1915 and a memorial is erected in Yerevan in tribute to the victims. They are members of the Church of the East (Nestorian), and have their own churches with local clergy. The Atour (Assyria) association dates from 1989 (formalized in 1992). It has an office in Yerevan which was donated by the Armenian authorities. Since 1998 there has been an Assyrian youth center (Ashour), and in 2003 a Beth-Nahrain (Mesopotamia) cultural center was inaugurated. Aramaic language textbooks were published in 2008. There are also radio and television programs. In Arzni there is an elementary school, and in the local public-school modern Aramaic (Sureth) is taught. The situation is almost similar in Verin Dvin.

The Assyrians of Armenia – indebted to this country which recognizes them – have returned this hospitality by fighting with their Armenian compatriots.

There are more important examples to note. The mayors of Arzni and Verin Dvin are Assyrians, regardless of gender. The signage (of the streets of the municipalities) is trilingual: Russian, Armenian, and Aramaic. Often the streets bear the names of Assyrian personalities including the philosopher Bardaisan (2nd century), the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, the king of Urhay (Edessa) Abgar Ukama, St Ephrem the Syrian, Patriarch Mar Benyamin Shimoun …

It will therefore be clear and understood that the Assyrians of Armenia – indebted to this country which recognizes them – have returned this hospitality by fighting with their Armenian compatriots for freedom and to keep Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian territory. According to the available information, at least six young Assyrians from the villages of Verin Dvin and Arzni died. Several are missing and wounded.

On October 25, the priest of the Assyrian community, Nikademus Yukhanaev, published a message of condemnation of the Turkish-Azeri attack in Aramaic and Armenian;

“We strongly condemn, the Turkish-Azeri attack and call on all Assyrians in the world and all people of good will to raise their voices to immediately put an end to this aggression, we stand in solidarity more than ever with our Armenian brothers, our communities are linked by our history and our culture.”

Denial on the one hand, recognition on the other! That is the difference between Turkey and Armenia.

Joseph Yacoub is honorary professor of political science at the Catholic University of Lyon, the first holder of the UNESCO chair “Memory, cultures and interculturality”. A specialist in minorities in the world and Eastern Christians. He is the author of numerous books, including: Who will remember it? 1915: the Assyro-Chaldean-Syriac genocide (Cerf, 2014); Forgotten by all. The Assyro-Chaldeans of the Caucasus (with Claire Yacoub, Cerf, 2015); Diversity under threat. Eastern Christians in the Face of Arab Nationalism and Islamism (Salvator, 2018).

The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.