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By Marcus Beth Shao
Celebrating and remembering are essential elements in the fabric of any mature society or nation state. Every year on 15 June, Syriacs around the world take time away from their work, close their shops, light candles and attend public commemorations and church memorial services in memory of the martyrs of the Sayfo Genocide of 1915. At least this is what you would expect in terms of national commemoration of the grossest form of violation of human rights and human dignity against the Syriac people 106 years ago. However, the Syriac people have not yet reached this stage of national awareness of collective commemoration as a society and nation. For many Syriacs whose ancestors were brutally massacred, deported and taken to be brought up as Turks and Kurds, it is a day like any other.
So how do the Syriacs commemorate the “Year of the Sword”, the Sayfo Genocide of 1915? To answer this question, we must first examine what the Sayfo means to Syriacs.
Sayfo and Beyond
In the second half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the long decline of the Ottoman Empire, any ambition or aspiration in Syriac nation-building was brutally suppressed. The fall of the Ottoman Empire culminated in the Armenian, Syriac, and the Greek genocides, which took place during World War I and its aftermath. In Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Mount Lebanon, millions perished at the hands of the Ottoman-Turks and allied Kurdish tribes. Churches, monasteries, houses, businesses, and factories were seized. Syriac women were taken as spoils of war, and Syriac children taken to be raised as Kurds and Turks. The Turkish Republic was founded on the blood of the Syriacs, Armenians, and Greeks.
Still bleeding from the open wounds of Sayfo and the dramatic loss of political and economic power, the Syriacs were left with a shattered national will. Many key church leaders acquiesced to the state, and secular leaders acquiesced to regional and tribal rulers. After the genocide, Turkish and Arab repressive nationalist regimes of the newly established countries of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq denied the Syriac people any form of self-rule. Syriacs were consciously reduced to merely a Christian community and deliberately stopped from establishing their own independent secular institutions. Successive nationalist regimes pursued policies of Turkification in southeast Turkey and Arabization in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. In rural areas, Syriacs suffered under dominant and armed Kurdish tribes.
Under policies of intimidation, denial, and violence, the Sayfo Genocide was, and continues to be consistently denied by most governments – Syrian parliament recognized the Armenian and Syriac genocide only recently in 2020. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic and Syrian Arab Republic, Syriacs were denied commemorating their hundreds of thousands of martyrs. No tradition of public remembering or official commemoration was allowed. During most of the 20th century, public and secular life was not possible for the Syriacs. As a consequence, in Turkey, Syria, and to a larger extent in Iraq, Syriacs had no opportunity to internalize and nurture a tradition of Sayfo Genocide commemoration.
While the Pontic Greeks emancipated their national remembering 1994 by establishing May 19 as their official Remembrance Day, Syriacs commemorated, especially in the diaspora between 1980-2010, their Sayfo martyrs on 24 April, in the shadow of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.
A Question of Identity
While both the Pontic Greeks and Armenians had their own day of national commemoration, it took the Syriacs until 2015 to step out of the Armenian shadow and nationally emancipate their commemoration. Under the unifying guidance of the Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic Churches, in consultation with many secular Syriac organizations, 15 June was designated as Sayfo Genocide Remembrance Day. While we know the massacres took place over a longer period of time, the fact remains that the killings against our people were the most intense in what is now southeast Turkey. On that day of June, massacres took place in the cities of Siirt, Hasno Keyfo, Nusaybin and the Syriac villages in the Tur Abdin region.
Unfortunately, the acceptance of 15 June as a national day of remembrance was slow and not generally internalized within the different segments of the Syriac nation.
Although the synods of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Syriac Catholic Church accepted the date, some local Syriac churches do not hold Sayfo memorial services on that day. Many churches, in the homeland and in the diaspora, do not have memorials in or around their building — I know some churches in Sweden, Germany, and Belgium have, but most do not. Why?
Also, the other Syriac churches — i.e. the Syriac Maronite, Chaldean, Assyrian, and the Ancient Church of the East — do not commemorate Sayfo. They do commemorate other historical events that happened in their distinct traditional geographies. The Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East for example, do not commemorate Sayfo but do commemorate the Simele Massacre of 1933 on 7 August as Assyrian Martyrs Day.
In recent years, the Syriac Maronites in Lebanon, under the inspiring guidance of the Syriac Maronite Union, commemorate ‘Kafno’, the Great Famine of Mount Lebanon (1915—1918). Two hundred thousand Syriacs in Mount Lebanon were starved to death by the Ottoman-Turks at a time when the population of Mount Lebanon was estimated to be some 400,000 people. To commemorate the Kafno is in itself a major step forward in national awareness and commemoration because the Syriac nation must remember its martyrs of past atrocities and pay them the respect they deserve. But these events should not be seen on their own but commemorated under the larger Sayfo Genocide rememberance. Zooming out, I see an overall image of conscious, planned, and continuous genocide against the Syriac nation, in Mount Lebanon, Tur Abdin, Mardin, Omid, Siirt and their environs, Hakkari, Mosul, Simele and in Urmia. They are all Sayfo!
Today’s situation, however, shows that we are not commemorating as one Syriac nation. This is clearly visible in that Sayfo is not commemorated in unity by secular Syriac organizations in the homeland and in the diaspora. When Syriacs were forcibly pushed out and driven from their ancestral homelands into the diaspora, they established secular organizations under different Syriac denominations. These organizations put much effort in making the troubled Syriac people conscious of their rich heritage, identity, and ancient historical roots. But they did so under the various historical names of the Syriacs — i.e. Chaldean, Aramean, and Assyrian. These segments of Syriac society were not able to reconcile under their common Syriac identity.
Hence, different segments of Syriac society now commemorate under different names and on different memorial days. The Syria-based Assyrian Democratic Organization still commemorates the Sayfo on 24 April and Assyrian Martyrs Day on 7 August. This also goes for several Assyrian parties in Iraq. Several Chaldean bishops like Aday Sher, Michel Malke and Toma Audo were tortured to death by Turks and Kurds. Yet, the Chaldean segment has minimally internalized the genocide, while they too were victims. Why?
The Aramean segment has, although somewhat slowly and sluggishly, moved to internalize 15 June as Sayfo Genocide Remembrance Day but refers to it as the Aramean Genocide — in Syriac they do use Syriac Genocide.
The Syriac people are now in a situation where they commemorate the Sayfo Genocide of 1915 as the Syriac Genocide, Aramean Genocide and Assyrian Genocide, each with its own symbolism and separate dates. Why do some Syriac organizations still use 24 April to remember Sayfo? What have we gained from holding on to 24 April? Did U.S. President Biden recognize our genocide when he, as the first U.S. President to do so, officially recognized the Armenian Genocide on 24 April 2021?
I think the religious and secular organizations of our Syriac people stand to gain much by officially adopting 15 June as Sayfo Remembrance Day. It would be a great step forward in unifying the nation if we unify in commemorations – even if different segments stick to the Aramean, Chaldean, or Assyrian names. In our nation building process I hope, Syriacs can reconcile on name in the future.
Why Should You Commemorate on 15 June?
In my previous articles, I argued that Syriacs are collectively traumatized and continue to suffer from what happened 106 years ago. We are suffering from the many frustrating attempts to gain recognition for the genocide. But how much can we blame others when we do not make the effort to remember as one people? Furthermore, I argued that a nation must celebrate its holidays and here my argument is to commemorate your days of remembrance.
So, will you remember the Sayfo together with your family and friends on 15 June? Will you take off from work? Will you light a candle or attend a commemoration mass?
What will you do?