The Syriac Genocide

This article was originally published in Turkish on June 16, 2021, by Gazete Sabro. The original can be found here

By Eren Keskin human rights lawyer – Vice President of the Human Rights Association (İHD) in Turkey

The region we live in is a geography full of crimes against humanity. The first and greatest crimes of the last century were committed here on our soil. The first of these horrible crimes that comes to mind is the fact of the Genocide of 1915 against the Armenians and other Christian peoples. For some reason, Sayfo, the Syriac Genocide, did not receive the attention it needs. Maybe because it falls within the broader scope of the events of the 1915 Genocide. However, it is in itself a fact of genocide against the Syriac people that we really need to discuss.

Official state ideology and history have been fabricated to hide this crime of genocide committed in our part of the world. Unfortunately, many of those who define themselves as political left or political right, have conceded and internalized this official ideology. It is sad to have to admint, but the fact of the Genocide of 1915 against Syriacs, Armenians, and other Christian peoples was only expressed in its full and true definition by the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association (İnsan Hakları Derneği, IHD) in 2005. In that year, the Istanbul IHD branch issued a statement entitled “Recognize the Genocide. Apologize and Compensate!” After this statement, the Human Rights Association was subjected to terrible and violent attacks.

Many of those who supposedly consider themselves part of the opposition have never dared to speak out and face the prevailing ideology about our region. What a shame. They do not dare to question the official theories of the Turkish state. Perhaps this is the reason why the Syriac Genocide was not or could not be discussed openly. Nevertheless, it is a fact that thousands, perhaps millions of Syriacs living in this region were forced to emigrate. All because their pain is not taken care of and their suffering ignored.

For years I worked as a lawyer for Syriac families. The few remaining Syriacs felt forced to leave their country and go abroad because the state imposed village guards [under the Village Guard System] on the vast majority of Syriac villages. When my clients asked me to visit their villages, I did research there. The facts I discovered were very unbelievably painful  The village guards had taken over entire Syriac villages, the houses they were born in, the schools they attended, their memories… everything was seized. In the case of the deaths of relatives in the diaspora, Syriacs now forcibly living abroad were forced to make arrangements with those same village guards to be able to return their relatives’ bodies to their ancestral villages for burial. Moreover, they had to give money to the same state-aligned village guards who had seized their properties and memories for their ‘efforts’ to have the relatives buried in their home villages. One cannot imagine how painful this must have been. Many people living in this region are not even aware of this cruel and bitter truth.

One of the events from the bitter reality of the Syriacs that made a deep impression on me, was when we as we as members of the IHD Commission against Racism and Discrimination met ‘Dayrayto’. We were told that there was a nun who lived alone in a Syriac church in one of the villages around Midyat. Everyone called her Dayrayto [which means nun in the Syriac language]. Her civilian name is Verde Gökmen. When we met Dayrayto, I saw and felt the whole suffering of the Syriac people in her expression.

Dayrayto lived alone in the church. The former priest with whom she took care of the church was buried in a wall of the church after his death. The Syriac church was located in a very prominent place in the city of Midyat and the grounds on which the church was built had great monetary value. Because of this, the eyes of many actors – the state, village guards, and even locals – preyed the premises of this Syriac church. Dayrayto was constantly harassed. Shots were fired in front of her church to intimidate, doors were banged regularly, stones were thrown, and she was cursed on. Dayrayto tried to fight off all this on her own. As a member of the Commission against Racism and Discrimination and as a lawyer, I took power of attorney from Dayrayto and studied the court files. I learned that all the incidents and harassments had led to impunity and no legal actions were taken against the threats against Dayrayto.

As Commission against Racism and Discrimination, we have prepared a very important report on this subject. Ayşe Günaysu, one of the committee members, produced a full report out of our investigations and findings: The Life Safety of Sister Verde Gökmen in Midyat-Tur Abdin, the village of Zaz (İzbirak), and the general social situation of Syriac villages in the region. The report made an impact and received much public attention. Dayrayto still lives and watches over her beloved church. What we really need to discuss here is the mindset responsible for the seizure and destruction of the Syriacs’ properties and memories through Genocide, something which cannot be discussed in contemporary Turkey.

The internalization of official ideology by society is, of course, closely related to the totalitarian and authoritarian structure of the Turkish state. As I mentioned above, most of those who define themselves along the different spectrums of politics, right or left, are not really interested in the official state ideology or the crimes behind this ideology. That is why the Sayfo Genocide of 1915 has always been ignored. Yes, the Syriac genocide was blotted out and forgotten. But today, through magazines such as Gazete Sabro, the leaders of the Syriac people and all Syriacs together are trying to make their voice heard about Sayfo. Through their efforts and the effect it generates on social media, the topic of the Sayfo Genocide has slowly come back on the agenda.

That is why it is extremely important that this great pain of Genocide be discussed again. That is why I think Gazete Sabro is doing very important work.

Eren Keskin is a prominent human rights lawyer and Vice President of the İnsan Hakları Derneği (Human Rights Association) in Turkey. You can follow her via Twitter @KesKinEren1

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