By Joseph Yacoub Honorary Professor of Political Science, Catholic University of Lyon
It is sad to have to conclude that the tragedy of Eastern Christians has a long history. The tragedy of the Assyrians-Chaldeans did not start today. They suffered the Genocide of 1915-1918 under Ottoman rule. And then there are the lesser-known massacres of August 1933 in Iraq, where tragedy once again marked the fate of the mountain-Assyrians. This tragic event is the cause of their exodus to French-mandated Syria. It resonated in Europe and was widely covered in the press. French and British diplomatic and military archives contain reports on the responsibility of the Iraqi authorities and its army in the massacres.
We must also point out a more recent uncovered fact. The British Royal Air Force at the time took aerial photos of the burnt and demolished villages. But in the name of superior state interests the authorities did not disclose the aerial photos at that time. Considered “Top secret”, they were only released fifty years later in 1984.
So, what happened in 1933? Some historical facts.
In September 1929, the British government, which since 1920 had a League of Nations mandate over Iraq, made known its intention to prematurely end this mandated status in 1932. This unexpected and rapid development deeply concerned the Assyrians who sent several petitions to the League of Nations as they feared for their safety and worried about equal treatment and freedom of conscience.
The integration into Iraq of the surviving mountain-Assyrians, refugees from Hakkari (Turkey), and under the protection of the English, from this point on started to encounter many difficulties, especially when it came to maintaining their traditional status to which they owed their existential sustainability. Their independence and future came under pressure and created misunderstandings as Baghdad refused to grant them any autonomy as a minority – despite the declaration signed before the League of Nations on 30 May 1932. Baghdad opposed their reuniting as a homogeneous group and sought to weaken their national identity by dispersing them and rolling back the institutional and worldly power of their patriarchate. Moreover, these Assyrians were considered as foreigners, and newly established Iraq, wrongly, saw in this minority a danger to its national cohesion and its own stability.
From there, the situation became critical. In May 1933, Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimoun was summoned to Baghdad by the Minister of the Interior under the pretext of discussing the future of his community. But he was put under house arrest for three months and Baghdad refused to recognize his worldly authority.
Not feeling safe and seeing the situation deteriorating, three months later some Assyrian tribal leaders decided to leave Iraq in mid-July and entered Syria. On the night of 4-5 August, returning to Iraq to look for their families, they found the crossing at Faysh-khabur blocked by the Iraqi army. Fighting broke out. From 7 to 15 August, the fighting was followed by massacres by the troops of Iraqi army Colonel Békir Sidqi. In the Assyrian villages north of Mosul horrifying killings took place. The European press was outraged by these persecutions against “a small defenseless people”.
On August 18, Patriarch Mar Eshai Shimoun was deported with his family to Cyprus after the British agreed to welcome him to the island.
And it was in the town of Simélé that the massacres were the most heinous. On 8 August 1933, the London correspondent of newspaper Le Temps, Robert Cru, wrote:
“Grim revelations have just been added to what we already knew about the atrocities which took place in the north of Iraq. A British official on tour in the region found 315 Assyrians slaughtered, peasants in no way involved in the recent skirmishes on the Syrian border.”
The government of King Faisal I, while deploring these incidents “gave its word of honor that such acts of savagery would not happen again” (Le Temps, 18 August). But all the officers who had taken part in these military operations received one year advancement, and for Colonel Békir Sidqi… well he was promoted to the rank of general.
The Assyrian leadership reported more than two thousand killed. Several villages were looted, destroyed, and burned. British Colonel R.S.H. Stafford, then administrative inspector of Mosul and who was personally strongly impacted by the events, published a book on this Assyrian tragedy. Professor J.T. Thomas Delos (1891-1974), who had reproduced accounts on the massacres in Simélé, added:
“The testimonies could be multiplied: But to what good? They are testimonies of a repeating horror.”
There were numerous articles in the British and Swiss press (Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Times, Manchester Guardian …., Le Journal de Genève). In France, the echo of these sad events was important (Le Figaro, Le Temps, Le Progrès, La France (Bordeaux). Le Progrès (Lyon) headlined on 20 August 1933:
“The massacre of the Assyrians in Iraq. The British public opinion is outraged by the allegations of the Iraqi government and over the deportation of the Assyrian Patriarch.”
Below two quotes from articles by the London correspondent of Le Figaro, published on 20 and 22 August 1933. In the article of 20 August, entitled “The massacres of Assyrians in Iraq”, we read an interesting analysis on post-independence Iraq:
“After England abandoned its mandate over Iraq, which was recognized as an independent nation and welcomed into the League of Nations, the result was not long in coming. The Muslims of Mesopotamia attacked the small minorities in their territory. Recently Assyrian tribes have been massacred.
According to the most optimistic information, there were over a thousand killed on the Assyrian side. Reports in the British capital prove the involvement of King Faisal’s regular military forces against the minorities in northern Iraq.
Iraq supports the Muslim Kurds against the Christian Assyrians. This is the truth. The unfortunate fate of the latter is worthy of pity. They fought alongside the allies during the war, but after the hostilities Turkey was given the land of Hakkari which was theirs. And we tried to disperse them and left them at the mercy of their enemies the Kurds and the Arabs.
It (i.e. the government of Baghdad) decided to deport the leader of the Assyrian tribes, Mar Shimun. England immediately offered him asylum on the island of Cyprus. This fact caused great indignation in London. And it is written there (…) that such an action is not compatible with the commitments made by Iraq to the League of Nations in the case of ethnic and religious minorities. We must not bite our fingers at the recognition of the independence of Iraq.
Sir Francis Humphrys, British Ambassador to Baghdad, left London yesterday afternoon by plane for Baghdad to meet with King Faisal.”
And the journalist concludes:
“Let us hope, while waiting for the League of Nations to establish a final home for the Assyrians, that the British representative will be able to impose the necessary measures on the sovereign ruler in Baghdad to prevent further massacres.”
Under the title “Patriarch Mar Shimun accuses King Faisal”, we read on 22 August:
“Patriarch Mar Shimun, who today arrived in Cyprus, where he was deported to from Baghdad, has brought serious charges against King Faisal.
The hereditary leader of the Assyrians said the king of Iraq held a great part of the responsibility for the massacres in which hundreds of his subjects perished, because it was at his instigation that two rebel Kurdish leaders took the lead in attacking the Assyrians.
In Semel, 325 Assyrians, women, children, and elderly were murdered. More than 500 Assyrians were massacred in nearby villages. Far from calming down, he added, the move against my co-religionists continues, threatening to decimate the whole tribe.”
Between yesterday and today, what has really changed for the Assyrians-Chaldeans?
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 Christians in the East, he has published ‘Le Moyen-Orient Syriaque.La face méconnue des chrétiens d’Orient’ (Salvator, 2019).