By Joseph Yacoub honorary professor of political science at the Catholic University of Lyon. Specialist in minorities in the world and Eastern Christians.
The date of April 24 comes up every year as a Leitmotif to commemorate the genocide of the Armenians and Assyrians-Chaldeans, committed by the Turkish-Ottoman Empire and its accomplices from April 24, 1915.
The Assyrians-Chaldeans have experienced tragedies during their long history since the fall of their imperial capitals Nineveh and Babylon some 2,700 years ago. However, the physical genocide and cultural ethnocide between 1915 and 1918 was the pinnacle of horror in their contemporary history. It is a unique crime that has left an indelible stain on their lives and memories.
Today, several factors are at work to show the real effects of this tragedy. The ongoing drama of the Christians in Syria and Iraq is always there to recall the past and revive memories. Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq (March 5-8, 2021) has come to wake up consciences.
The massacres, an infernal and premediated operation, took place over a very wide area in Cilicia and Eastern Anatolia, in Persian Azerbaijan, and in the province of Mosul. Convoys of deportees sadly lined the roads of Anatolia. Add to these convoys the abominable odysseys of paths of exile. More than two hundred and fifty thousand Assyrians-Chaldeans were massacred.
What is not well known however, is what happened later on at the Turkish-Persian front in Iranian Azerbaijan. There were repeated Turkish incursions along with local Kurdish and Persian accomplices. And Turkey made no secret of its ambitions to take these provinces. All in the name of Pan-Turanism.
It is therefore important to realize that, after 1915, the tragedy did not stop but continued until 1918. Dramatic events repeated themselves in this province of Azerbaijan, because after the final withdrawal of Russian troops from the Persian front in December 1917, the region fell into the hands of the Turks in April 1918. The Turks took advantage of the events to control the area and commit new massacres.
About the events on this Turkish-Persian front and on the fate of the Assyrians-Chaldeans, there are important French documents that are not really well known. Indeed, there was an active French diplomacy, and it should be noted that among the martyrs who fell victim to the genocide there were also French citizens. The most famous being Monsignor Jacques-Emile Sontag, an Alsatian, archbishop of Isfahan and an apostolic delegate, as well as Father Mathurin L’Hotellier, a Breton. Both of them were Lazarist missionaries serving the country since 1840; and with them, more than eight hundred Assyrians-Chaldeans.
France showed solidarity with the Assyrians-Chaldeans and Armenians and vigorously protested against the persecutions and massacres. Already on June 24, 1915, Alfonse Nicolas, French consul in Tabriz, alerted his Minister of Foreign Affairs about the posters calling for Jihad in the name of Islam, posted in the city of Urmia.
From the year 1918, we have the letters of the French envoy to Persia, Raymond Lecomte, and the letters of Georges Ducrocq and Maurice Saugon, consul in Tabriz (Taurus).
Addressing the Persian authorities on September 8, 1918, Ambassador Raymond Lecomte strongly denounced the atrocities and massacres that Msgr. Sontag and his missionaries were victims of, as well as the Christian population. He demanded justice from the Persian authorities against those responsible for the criminal attacks and demanded redress.
Lecomte wrote: “On the 27th of July, in Urmia, His Eminence Monsignor Sontag, a French citizen, Delegate of the Holy Apostolic Church to Persia, was massacred; Father Dinkha, a Persian citizen and a Catholic priest, was massacred; A large part of the Catholic community of the city was massacred; At the same time, according to reports which have not yet received official confirmation, but which no one doubts, I am told that in Khosrava, Father L’Hotellier, a French citizen and a Catholic priest, and the entire Catholic community of the city were put to death and subjected to terrible torture. From the same reports, it appears that these murders were committed by Persian citizens belonging to the population of these cities or belonging to neighboring Kurdish tribes.”
Consequently, he claimed “reparations because of French nationality and Christian religion, outraged by these abominable crimes.”
The next day, September 9, Lecomte sent a similar letter to Stephen Pichon, his Minister of Foreign Affairs, alluding to the perpetrators of the killings and the responsible authorities instigating the crime. He concluded in a firm tone: “Our military successes will be double precious to me if they can lend us here the necessary authority to avenge the death of this noble Bishop Sontag and the humble heroes who shared his martyrdom.”
Ambassador Raymond Lecomte called on September 13, 1918, to attend the religious service in honor of the memory of Bishop Sontag and his three companions Mathurin L’Hotellier, Nathaniel Dinkha, and François Miraziz, who were massacred in Urmia and Salmas. The service was celebrated in Tehran at the Catholic Church of the Lazarist Mission. Through investigations, unfortunately unsuccessful, it was sought to find out who, the Persians or the Turks, were responsible for the murder of Msgr. Sontag and the plundering of the French Catholic establishments.
On February 13, 1921, Georges Ducrocq, the military attaché in Tehran, wrote a report on the Assyrians-Chaldeans, entitled “Note on the Assyrians-Chaldeans”, which did not hide his sympathy for them and underlined their sufferings, their exploits, and their forced dispersion. He expresses his admiration for the fierce battle they fought during the siege of Urmia in February 1918.
Maurice Saugon, Consul in Tabriz, wrote several letters and reports. On April 3, 1920, he sent a note to his Minister containing lists of people massacred and atrocities committed against indigenous and foreign Christians in the regions of Salmas, Urmia, and Khoi “by the Persians, Turks, and Kurds” in 1915 and 1918.
He also sent the Minister a letter on March 23, 1920, about the circumstances of the death of Father Mathurin L’Hotellier. We thus learn that at the beginning of June 1918, the Ottoman troops invaded the district of Diliman/Salmas, where the Frenchman Fr L’Hotellier and the Assyrian-Chaldean F. Miraziz were murdered after they were taken to the village of Cheïtanabad.
On the killing of Fr L’Hotellier and Fr Miraziz, Saugon describes, on March 8, 1920, the circumstances of the killing, incriminating the general at the head of the Turkish army:
“According to the information that has reached me, it is to Ali Ihsan Pasha that we seem to need to attribute the massacre in Diliman (Salmas) of M. L’Hotellier, French Lazarist, superior of the Catholic Mission of Khosrava, and of his native confrere Father Miraziz. Father L’Hotellier, at the time when Ali Ihsan Pasha was in Diliman, went to meet the general with a Christian delegation to affirm to the enemy general that the non-Muslim population only want to live in good understanding with the Ottomans and that he, a Lazarist, the spiritual leader of this community, had always multiplied his efforts to walk in agreement with the Muslims of the country.”
Unfortunately, the worst happened: “Two or three days later, Ali Ihsan Pasha had Father L’Hotellier, Father Miraziz, and other Armenian and Catholic notables taken out of the city where they were not only shot, but also mutilated by the Turks.”
In the footsteps of these French diplomats, France would be honored to recognize this genocide on the Assyrians-Chaldeans, as it did for the Armenians.
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.
Professor Joseph Yacoub’s latest book (May 2021): Les Assyro-Chaldéens: Mémoirs d’une tragédie qui se répète