Joseph Yacoub: “Official recognition of the Assyrian-Chaldean genocide is a duty of remembrance.”

FIGAROVOX/TRIBUNE - On February 8, 2023, French senators will debate Valérie Boyer and Bruno Retailleau's resolution on the recognition of the Assyrian-Chaldean genocide. For the historian, the resolution text fits well into the long French tradition of solidarity with Christians in the East.

Originally published in French by Le Figaro on January 24, 2023. The original can be found here

By Joseph Yacoub honorary professor of political science at the Catholic University of Lyon. Specialist in minorities in the world and Eastern Christians.

On February 8, the Senate will discuss in a public session the draft resolution, pursuant to Article 34-1 of the French Constitution, on the recognition of the 1915-1918 genocide of the Assyrians-Chaldeans. The bill is submitted by Senator Valérie Boyer and Senator Bruno Retailleau and has already been signed by more than 70 senators. This is clearly an important and historic event. It is the first time in France that the question of the genocide of the Assyrians-Chaldeans is subjected to a public examination, followed by a vote. Let us recall that in 1915-1918, under the Ottoman Empire, at the same time as the Armenian genocide, there was the genocide of the Assyrians-Chaldeans with a multifaceted character; physical, cultural and cultic (ethnocide), the imposition of inhuman living conditions, and the beginning of their wanderings in the world. More than half of the community, estimated at about 500,000 members, was martyred. It was a concerted and planned policy of extermination. It is supported by extensive documentation in several languages.

Among the victims were also Frenchmen, who suffered martyrdom out of love in June-July 1918. We think in particular of the Alsatian bishop Jacques-Emile Sontag and of Mathurin L’Hotellier, from Brittany, whose edict for beatification – along with two Lazarist Assyrians-Chaldeans: François Miraziz and Nathaniel Dinkha – was signed by the Archbishop of Paris on January 6, 2021. What does the resolution text say? It contains some reflections on memory and history, which contribute to and form the identity of peoples, while forgetting and denial undermine the respect of human dignity. Also, it asks France not to forsake “in its historical and moral duty to protect the Christian minorities of the East so as not to make history blush!” It adds: “And tomorrow, who will speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ spoken by the Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs?”

What does the resolution recommend? The text calls on the French government to officially recognize the mass extermination, deportation and suppression of the cultural heritage of more than 250,000 Assyrians-Chaldeans by the Ottoman authorities between 1915 and 1918 as genocide. It also calls on the government to publicly condemn this genocide and to make April 24 the annual date of commemoration of the Armenian and Assyrian-Chaldean genocides. To understand the significance of this act, we must go back in time and find that France has always shown much solidarity with the oppressed minorities of the Middle East and has always shown benevolence towards them. France took a particular interest in the genocidal and ethnocidal tragedy of 1915-1918. Politicians, diplomats, the clergy, intellectuals and the media denounced these massacres. Abbot, Doctor of Letters, and canon of Beauvais in the Department of Oise, Eugène Griselle (1861-1923), was the author of numerous works and actively pleaded the cause of the Assyrians-Chaldeans in 1917 through his publications and his actions.

Denys Cochin (1851-1922), MP for Paris, writer and author of numerous works, member of the French Academy and who occupied several ministerial posts, published a long article on the front page of the Figaro on July 13, 1919, entitled “Pour L’Arménie” (For Armenia), in which we read:

“A new massacre of Christians is imminent. The rest of the women and children of Ourmiah are in danger. The Nestorian and Armenian people ask for immediate help. Any delay may be fatal.” He added: “Turkish fury did not distinguish between the Orthodox Greeks, the Catholics, the Nestorians, the Chaldeans, or even the Yezidis, who are neither Christians nor Muslims and preserve, it is said, sacred books of fabulous antiquity, and the worship of the gods of Nineveh and Babylon.”

Men of letters stood out in the defense of the Assyrians-Chaldeans. For example, Frédéric Masson (1847-1923), perpetual secretary of the French Academy. Also, the press, of all stripes, did not remain silent. Articles abounded on their dramas, their civilization and their culture in the Journal des Débats, Le Temps, L’Humanité, Le Figaro, Le Gaulois, Le Matin, La Presse, La Croix, l’Asie Françoise, L’Univers, L’Illustration… And when the Assyrians-Chaldeans pleaded their cause at the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919-1920, France was attentive to their demands and their civil and religious leaders were received by the politicians. But France’s relations with the Christians of the East and the Assyrians-Chaldeans date back to well before the tragedy of 1915, links having been woven over many centuries. James of Assyria in Tarentaise and Abraham of the Euphrates in Auvergne already mark a presence of Mesopotamia in Gaul in the fifth century. The historian Gregory of Tours in the sixth century (540-594) evokes these Orientals present in France and who translated texts from Greek into Latin and who welcomed the Merovingian king Gontran in Orleans. Moreover, these Orientals spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

Also Read: How Turkey Exterminated its Christian Minorities

Then came the sixteenth century, which saw the beginning of the era of capitulations with the Ottoman Empire, agreed by King Francis I and Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Since then, agreements have been concluded which give France, through its diplomatic and cultural representatives, an important role in the East. Since then, projects, particularly in the field of education, have continued to develop, as well as the promotion of religious freedom for non-Muslim minorities. Indeed, since that time, France has almost continuously maintained embassies in the capitals and consular staff in many cities, as well as specialists and consultants. It also established missions in Persia – where Assyrians have lived for more than 2000 years – as early as the sixteenth century. Richelieu and Colbert worked in the same direction. At the beginning of the twentieth century, France contributed to the improvement of the legal status of the Assyrians-Chaldeans in the Ottoman Empire. And throughout this same century, humanitarian, charitable and political action, as well as calls for solidarity, have not ceased. This Senate resolution opens a new page, one that will mark the transition of the Assyrians-Chaldeans from a people classified on the margins of history to a people now included in history.

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),Les Assyro-Chaldéens: Mémoirs d’une tragédie qui se répète, May 2021. His last book (co-written with his wife Claire Yacoub) is Martyrs par amour en Perse. Mgr Sontag et ses trois compagnons, Ed. Salvator, June 2022.

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