Being tolerated after the Genocide of 1915

This article was originally published in Turkish by Gazete Sabro. The original can be found here

By Aris Nalci journalist and moderator at Arti TV

Dear Sabro readers, this is my first article for Gazete Sabro, but it will not be the last. Hoping that the foundations of unity, confrontation, and solidarity within ourselves begin with small steps like these, I send my heartfelt greetings to you… Shlomo!

In an interview with Mesopotamia Agency, President of the Syriac Federation in Turkey SÜDEF Evgil Türker talked about his own life experiences and those of his ancestors in Turkey post-Sayfo Genocide. One statement in particular evoked great feelings of sadness: “Syriacs were tolerated.” “We tolerate you!” was the prevailing mentality in Turkey. “That is why we Syriacs are alive today. Else, we would not have survived,” he said. Türker put it in the most apt wording: living at the mercy of tolerance. Within the borders of Turkey, we still see the repercussions of the lie that the peoples of Turkey have lived under for centuries, the lie of a society where “the other is tolerated”.

The case of Hürmüz and Şhmuni Diril is a best example of this. For the couple that returned to their native lands, and which was loved by all, their disappearance was swallowed up by Turkish tolerance. The same tolerant society also did not make a fuss about the subsequent attack on the Chaldean church in the area where the Dirils lived.

And what happened to the Syriac Orthodox monk who gave food to those who came to his door…? Monk Aho was sentenced to jail because as a man of religion he would not lie and did not give false testimony. These events draw on the limits of this mindset of tolerance.

The construction of a car park on the premises of a Syriac Catholic monastery in Mardin. The attempts to ‘break’ the Syriac Orthodox Zafaran Monastery, also in Mardin, and seize its lands are all symptoms of this same phenomenon of tolerance. As the nationalist elements in the country try to stay on their feet, they continue to destroy zealously as if it is their national duty.

Monasteries and trees

Monasteries have always brought much productivity to their environs. Armenian and Syriac monasticism has made great contributions to the cities of Mardin, Harput, Van and their wider areas. The monasteries around Harput are known to have been surrounded by mulberry trees and vineyards. When I visited the church in the village of Hulvenk, the mulberry trees were burned. But their deep roots were still there. Where Armenian monasteries once produced wine in the region’s most beautiful and productive vineyards, with the Genocide of 1915 however, first the people were massacred and then nature destroyed. When the people were gone, there was no one left to take care of the grapes. Those who did not know the vineyards burned the trees. They destroyed and wanted to make forget what came before them. The trees have maybe been burned for 100 years, but their roots are still growing underneath the earth.

The Zafaran Monastery adds splendor to Mardin with the nearly 6,000 olive trees around it. 6,000 olive trees require great effort. It needs love to grow them, and it requires audacity. What it does not need or want is tolerance.

It is not known whether it was out of tolerance or something else, but some of these trees were burned for unknown reasons in 2019. About 500 olive trees were destroyed. But the Syriac Church did not resign. It planted new trees around the ancient monastery and the olive oil produced in the grove was awarded in 2020 and received a golden medal. Just imagine how many more gold medals the Syriacs, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks, and all other peoples can bring to these lands, if only they would be more than merely tolerated.

The Syriacs acted more courageously

From the early 2000s, enthusiasm for a return to their original lands arose among the descendants of the Christian Genocide survivors. Perhaps the most important achievement of democratization and social reconciliation movements in Turkey has been to create this hope. No Genocides were recognized but the Syriacs and Armenians believed in the sincerity of the people and the purity of hearts. The diaspora, however, did not yet take into account the danger of ‘tolerance’.

In the calls for return, the Armenians acted more cautiously. Those who travelled to Turkey mainly spent their visits outside Istanbul and in groups. They were always in a state of unease and took the Armenians of Turkey with them on their travels. Everywhere the Armenians went there were agitated reactions and smaller and bigger quarrels, but in the atmosphere of hope that had arisen, they accepted and said to themselves, “These things will come to pass,” and “Not all will come at once.”

The Syriacs were braver. The number of people returning directly to their villages was higher. It was even widely covered in Turkish mainstream media: “14 Syriac families from Switzerland have returned.” One of those who heeded Ecevit’s call for return was Aziz Demir, the mayor of the village of Elbegendi (Kafro). He explained that after 2002, they started work to get the declared state of emergency lifted from the region’s no-go villages. They permanently resettled on September 1, 2006.

Even though the wounds of 1915 had not yet healed, the Syriacs who were forced to leave their villages and lands in the 1980s were fully aware that time was running out; if they did not return, they would forever lose the opportunity to live on their lands, as had happened to the Armenians. There was the possibility for them to be deprived of their citizenship because they did return to the country for a long time. And their lands could be taken by neighboring Kurdish tribes, maybe even confiscated. This courage was proof that the Syriacs would not give up their existence in these lands after the Sayfo Genocide.

Armenians as Syriacs

Unlike the Armenian churches, the Syriac Churches were able to maintain a presence in the region for a certain period of time after 1915. A new dimension emerged in the intertwined fate of Armenians and Syriacs, especially around the cities of Mardin and Midyat. In the Genocide, Armenian schools and churches were totally destroyed. Syriac institutions were also damaged and hundreds of thousands of people were killed but some Syriac churches remained (a subject worth more study, if not already done by someone). In this union of fate, Armenians living in the mountains in Muş Varto, Sason, Van and environs were baptized in Syriac churches until the 1980s by Syriac clerics – mainly because Armenian priests were afraid to visit these regions.

When there were no Armenians left in these regions, these children migrated to Istanbul in the 1980s-1990s. When these children with Armenian names wanted to enroll in Armenian schools in Istanbul, it turned out that their baptismal papers read Syriac. Of course, they could not say, ‘There were Armenian priests, but we were not baptized’. The important thing for the Armenians who were baptized in Syriac churches was to become Christians. It did not matter in which church; the church was the church.

At the time, Syriacs had no own schools in Istanbul. The Armenian children found themselves in an impasse. For this reason, the first children coming from Mardin-Midyat, Muş, Sason, and Van were illegally educated in Armenian schools.

These issues brought the Armenian, Syriac, and Chaldean churches even closer together in the 1990s. After some time, the baptism issue was resolved, and these people were integrated into society. Today they are the cornerstones of Armenian society. They are the ones who still remember the rituals of their parents from back in the villages and who try to carry those rituals from generation to generation, even though they emigrated to Europe.

Free from the yoke of tolerance and in loving memory of all Syriac, Chaldean, and Assyrian people massacred in the Sayfo Genocide, and to those who will create hope for the future.

Umutla / In full hope!

Aris Nalci is a journalist and moderator at Arti TV. You can follow him at @arisnalci