The Assyrian Genocide and Its Antecedents
By Abdulmesih BarAbraham
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Lyon, France (AINA) -- Professor Joseph Yacoub is the author of numerous articles and dozen of books, some translated into English. His latest book is titled Les Assyro-Chaldéens : mémoire d'une tragédie qui se répète (The Assyro-Chaldeans: Memory of a Repeating Tragedy) and published in April 2021 by L'Harmattan, Paris.

In this book Professor Yacoub presents an comprehensive analysis of different historical tragedies occuring thorughout the Assyrian homelands that culminate in the genocide of 1915-1918, known as "Years of the Sword" in Assyrian. Professor Yacoub has succeeded in making an important and essential contribution to the Assyrian history and genocide studies by covering the events related to the suffering of the Assyrians in their large spatial and temporal dimensions: from central and East Turkey to Iran, Azerbaijan and Iraq.

Professor Yacoub covers the developments that led to the genocide while providing new and relevant sources. Drawing from French and Vatican diplomatic and military archives, Professor Yacoub enriches the book with insights of French diplomacy regarding the Assyrian-Chaldeans, the French Catholic Church's condemnation of the massacres, and the diplomatic and humanitarian role of the Holy See. The book elaborates also on the post-genocide diplomacy related to the Paris Conference (1919-1920). Professor Yacoub finally discusses novel aspects of philosophical, political and moral considerations.

Professor Yacoub is an Assyrian born in Hassake, Syria. He is Honorary Professor (Political Science) from the Catholic University of Lyon and was the first chair holder of UNESCO's Memory, Cultures and Interculturality, expert on minority issues, human rights and Eastern Christianity. His parents, originally from Iranian Azerbaijan (Salamas district), suffered during the Turkish genocide of Assyrians during World War I, taking refuge in Georgia before settling in Syria in 1921.

In the course of reviewing his book I had the opportunity to conduct the following interview with him (translated from French).

Abdulmesih BarAbraham (AB): Professor Yacoub, in recent years you have published several books on the situation of the Assyrians, including few focused on the genocide in 1914-1918. In this book you make a strong reference to the situation in Iraq and Syria of today. What parallels do you see?

Joseph Yacoub (JY): Now, as in the past, tragedy marks the destiny of the Assyrians, since the fall of capitals of Nineveh and Babylon and the small Aramaic kingdoms, as if history were repeating itself, despite the difference in circumstances. In this book, I highlight this tragic situation and the Assyrian destiny strewn with vicissitudes, tribulations and misfortunes.

The Chaldean abbot Paul Béro, who was an eyewitness to the events in Mardin [Turkey], summarized the procession of sufferings endured in the past and during the genocide of 1915-1918 quite well. He wrote in 1920: "The storm of persecution has fallen upon this nation. Violent blows have opened wide and deep wounds on its flanks." After 1915, their misfortune was prolonged with the massacres in 1933 in Iraq and in 1938 in the USSR (USSR). During the Soviet era, Assyrian exiles from the Caucas regions and Russia, who had found refuge there, suffered from Stalinist terror. February 5, 1938 marks a black day when everything turned upside down: leaders and members of the community were arrested, their schools closed and their teachers deported.

Related: The Assyrian Genocide

Let us recall that in the aftermath of the Simmele massacres, perpetuated in Iraq in August 1933, a well-documented book appeared, published by the leadership of the Assyrian community, entitled: The Assyrian Tragedy. Deeply saddened by the course of events, we read in this report: "History must be impartial because it is its task to record this unprecedented tragedy, the result of which was the annihiliation of the majority of one of the oldest Christian peoples." Two years later, Lieutenant-Colonel R. S. Stafford, who was an British administrative inspector in Mosul, published a book in London with an almost similar title: The Tragedy of the Assyrians, devoted to the events of 1933.

Related: The 1933 Massacre of Assyrians in Simmele, Iraq

AB: You write that in the region of Hakkari [southeast Turkey], for example, where the Assyrians have been living for thousands of years, there were massacres and displacements caused by Ottoman troops already in the 19th century (1834, 1890-95). What were the intentions/motives of the Ottomans at that time and what were the consequences for Assyrians?

JY: The historical antecedents are unfortunately numerous. There are analogies, from the point of view of the massacres, between the World War One and the ferocities of Tamerlane.

Ottoman oppression did not begin in 1915. The events of 1837, those of 1843-1847, described by the Russian vice-consul in Urmiah, Basil Nikitin, as "terrible massacre", those of 1890-1896, or even 1906 to 1914 are a prelude to the great tragedy.

The year 1831 was decisive, as it heralded the entry of Ottoman power through the intermediary of the Vali and the Governor General into Hakkari, a region which until then had been closed to them. Thus, the Assyrians were gradually brought under the authority of the Turkish government. This central policy was accompanied by a deliberate desire to weaken the temporal power of the Assyrian patriarch, Mar Shimun XXII Abraham (1820-1861), by attempting to break his independence. It was sought to extend and strengthen the power of the Ottoman Administration over the mountainous region of Hakkari, in order to dominate it. But the Assyrians quickly understood that this was a ploy to end their autonomy.

Related: Genocides Against the Assyrian Nation

In 1837, there was a forced exodus from the province of Van to Persia. On his way from the city of Van to Salamas, Horatio Southgate, an American Episcopalian, recounts this exodus of Nestorian Christians from Turkey to Persia. In 1843-1847, there were again multiple attacks. In the high mountains of Hakkari, Assyrians lived under tribal rule. Their geographical isolation granted them quasi-independence and protected them from the upheavals that destabilized the Ottoman Empire. But things started to change. The Ottoman power, absent for a long time, began, as we have seen, to take an interest in this strategic region, the stepping stone of two empires (Ottoman and Persian). Indeed, between 1843 and 1847, violent conflicts of arms took place in the mountains of Hakkari and in Bohtan, between Kurds and Assyrians. The Kurdish Emir of Bohtan, Bedr Khan, unleashed a "holy war against the infidels" and a veritable carnage among the Assyrian population. The Anglican pastor, George P. Badger, quotes in this regard a letter from the Nestorian Patriarch Mar Abraham Shimoun, received in June 1843, in which he confirms the events.

As we know, in 1846, Bedr Khan invaded the territory of the Assyrian tribe of Tkhouma and committed terrible massacres, destroyed villages and devastated churches. As for the survivors, they attempted to cross the border to seek refuge among their compatriots in Persia. As a result, these events caused the exodus of many Assyrians from Bohtan and Hakkari to Persia and Russia.

Between 1890 and 1896, there were several other attacks. In 1895, the entirely Assyrian village of Sarai near the Persian border became victim of massacres, leading to a flight to Urmia and Salamas.

Under the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid, things continued to turn for the worse. 1896 was indeed a year of massive persecutions. In June-July there were large bereavements in Albaq, Gavar and Barwar districts. In France, Father Eugène Griselle, secretary general of the Catholic Committee for French Propaganda Abroad (CCPFE), recounts these facts. He writes: "The barbaric massacres of Sultan Abdul-Hamid are not far from us. Nearly half a million Armenians were put to the sword or died in poverty, among them there were several thousand Assyrian-Chaldeans." In England appeals for donations were published by the Assyrian Mission of the Anglican Church, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple. They deplore the Kurdish raids on many villages. In Germany, the Pastor Johannes Lepsius (1858-1926), founder of the Deutsche Orient Mission, appeals to the great Western powers, and to his country in particular, to become aware of the fate of Christianity in Turkey. In 1895 and 1896, in the course of the general massacres of Armenians, "25 to 30 thousand Assyrians in different parts of Turkey," were killed, according to one document.

Under the Young Turk Revolution (1908-1909), which put an end to the power of Sultan Abdul Hamid and saw the arrival of Ottoman Ittihad ve Terraki Cemiyeti (Committee for Union and Progress - CUP), the Assyrians did not perceive any positive change, notwithstanding the hope raised at the beginning with the promises made. This opinion is shared by Paul Béro. On the leaders of CUP, he writes: "The Unionists believed, according to absurd utopias and fruit of their deranged brains, that the question of the nationalities of the empire was going to be easily settled by massacres." Further, he adds, that "there would be no more elements to claim their historical rights and the fight would end for lack of combatants."

AB: Why did the world public not become aware of the terrible situation of the Assyro-Chaldeans much earlier and more seriously as they did in case of the Armenians, despite, as you mention, the presence since the middle of the 19th century of several missionary societies, among them American, British, Russian, French, German and Swiss?

JY: Yes, the Assyrians are strongly present in the missionary sources you mention, including Armenian sources. In the memorandum of the deputy of Van, Archag Vramian, addressed to Talaat Bey, Ottoman Minister of the Interior, dated March 1915, he also includes atrocities committed on the Assyro-Chaldeans. One can also cite the book of Raymond H. Kévorkian and Yves Ternon, Mémorial du Génocide des Arméniens, in which one reads: "By November 1914, the Ottomans were active in Iran, along with their Union and Progress committees. Members of the Special Organization (SO) had infiltrated the districts of Salamas and Urmia. The Ottomans carried out offensives there, supported by the Kurds. After the Russian withdrawal from Azerbaijan, the region was immediately occupied by the Ottoman troops who reinforced their propaganda and massacred the Christian population. And when they entered Tabriz on January 9, 1915, they were warmly welcomed by the Persian population."

It should be added that those who wrote about the Armenian genocide are almost the same ones who wrote about the Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac genocide. The proof is the British Blue Book, edited by Lord James Bryce, a diplomat and historian, and Arnold Toynbee, the well-known compiler of the book. Moreover, the American Relief Committee, which was based in New York City, bore the names of both Armenians and Assyrians: American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief. The Ararat organ of the Armenian United Association published several articles on the tragedies experienced by the Assyro-Chaldeans. In addition, Joseph Naayem's book included both communities in its title: The Chaldean Assyrians and the Armenians massacred by the Turks.

In both cases, Turkish nationalists aimed to eradicate ethnically non-Turkish and religiously non-Muslim groups, in order to homogenize the Empire and Turkify it, by eliminating them from too sensitive geographical areas under the false pretext of disloyalty, by exterminating them, dispersing them or deporting them.

On these two tragedies, we can say that we have more or less the same amount of documents. On the difference concerning the treatment of the Armenian and Assyrian genocides, there are several reasons that deserve a separate discussion. I will limit myself here to quoting a document from 1933: "The difference between the massacres of the Armenians and those of the Assyrians consists in the fact that in the case of the former, every measure had been taken to give them wide publicity, whereas in the case of the latter, unimaginable precautions were and are taken in order to confine, albeit in vain, the sad news of them only to those places still tinged with Assyrian blood." This is, however, only one aspect among many.

AB: In chapter 5 of the book, titled The calamities of 1915 in the Ottoman Empire and in Persia, you seem to have utilized various new original sources such as David Ilyan and Jacques Manna to elaborate on the events in the Van region. What new insight do they give us on the Van Sanjak [district]?

JY: The Assyrians of the Van sandak are forgotten. We know the sanjak of Hakkari with its Assyrian population, which is part of the vilayet of Van. But who knows that there were Assyrians in the other Sanjak (named Van) of the same vilayet?

Let us recall that in 1915, the vilayet of Van was divided into two administrative entities, called sanjak, those of Van and Hakkari. The history of the Assyrians in the Hakkari Sanjak is well known, but the history of Van is far less known. Apart from the Assyrian tribes of Hakkari, there were other areas of Assyrian settlements in the vilayet of Van - albeit on a reduced scale - which were mostly rayets (subjects of the Kurdish aghas). There are a number of villages whose origin dates back to ancient times, where Assyrians shared life with Armenians and Kurds.

On the eve of World War I, the sanjak of Van counted more than 2,000 Assyrians, including a significant number of followers of the Church of the East, known as "Nestorians," and also Chaldeans.

On the villages and churches of the Van sanjak, we have documentation that comes mainly from the Anglican missionaries who were active there. They had a station in the city of Van since 1903 and had opened schools in some villages. They also had orphanages and hospitals. In 1906-1907, they had five schools there.

This region has produced an illustrious personality: David Ilyan, native of the village of Satibag. He was born in 1910 and took refuge with his family in the Caucases, in Gandja in Azerbaijan. In 1915, then under Russian domination, his father Ilyan Auraham founded a school there, where the young David learned modern Assyrian and classical Syriac. He studied in Gandja until 1927. He then completed a university degree in philosophy and history in Leningrad by 1938 and then in Baku (1947). David Ilyan lived in Tiflis where he was a teacher. He began to write at a young age. His poems appeared in the Soviet Assyrian magazine Kukhva d'Madinkha (Eastern Assyrian, published in Tiflis) and were translated into Russian and Georgian. His famous poem Mam Shalu and Kambar, in which he criticizes social oppression and exploitation, appeared in Moscow in 1938 and was translated into German and published in both languages in 1962. In his poem The Garden of a Thousand Flowers he pleads for peace, solidarity and love between people. Another poem from 1964 is entitled My Bitter Way.

We can also mention Jacques Manna, the Chaldean bishop of Van, an eyewitness, who is discussed in detail in my book.

AB: Chapter eight of your book elaborates on the diplomatic role of France, where you present letters and other communications by French diplomats. What new perspectives on the events do they offer?

JY: France had shown solidarity with the Christians of Persia. We can read on this subject the correspondence of the ambassador in Tehran Raymond Lecomte (1858-1921), those of Captain Georges Ducroy (1874-1927), military attaché from 1919 to 1921, and the accounts of the consuls in Tabriz, Alfonse Nicholas and Maurice Saugon.

On September 9, 1918, the Ambassador in Persia sent a letter to Stéphen Pichon, French Minister of Foreign Affairs, in which he emphasized the tragic news of the assassination of Bishop Jacques-Emile Sontag and the three other Lazarist missionaries, Nathanaël. Dinkha, Mathurin L'Hotellier and François Miraziz.

France largely echoed the massacres of 1915-1918 in Persia. The following example testifies to the close ties that existed between France and the Assyro-Chaldeans.

The historian Léon Abensour, author of numerous works, professor of history and geography, doctor of letters, former secretary to the French president Georges Clémenceau, published an article entitled The Resurrection of Assyria and Chaldea on April 26, 1919, in the weekly review L'Europe Nouvelle, in which we read: "According to the testimony of the American delegates, testimony given even prior America left its neutrality status, the massacres and deportations amount in 350,000 men, women and children as victims for the Assyrian-Chaldean nation." Furthermore, "So the Christians of Chaldea were struggling. They now want, it's fair, to be in the spotlight and their peace program is worth to be exposed to French public. Today the Assyrian-Chaldean nation forms a well-defined religious, ethnic and linguistic group in the midst of the Muslim and Christian populations of the former Ottoman Empire."

AB: Similarly, in a short chapter you write about the diplomatic and humanitarian role of the Vatican. How did the Holy See interact with the Ottoman authorities? Did the Vatican intervene on behalf of the Assyro-Chaldeans in particular or spoke for the Armenians and/or Catholics only? What kind of humanitarian aid did the Vatican provide to the Assyro-Chaldeans? Some scholar cite a letter by Pope Benedict XV sent to Sultan Muhammad V Reshad on September 10, 1915. What does it say? Archbishop Angelo Dolci was apostolic delegate in Constantinople. Did he ever had contacts the representatives of our churches?

JY: With respect to this tragedy, it is essential to highlight the role played by the diplomacy of the Holy See, on the diplomatic and humanitarian levels.

The Vatican documents and archives contain invaluable sources on the ordeal of 1915-1918 from the time of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XV, such as the correspondence and reports sent to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the Vatican Secretary of State for the Congregation for the Oriental Church and the Congregation de Propaganda Fide, and also those of Monsignor Angelo Dolci, Apostolic Delegate in Constantinople.

On the other hand, the Congregation de Propaganda Fide was solicited by the Christians of the East during the period from 1915 to 1918. The Vatican came to the aid of this bruised Christianity and provided financial aid before, during and after the war. Thus, in a letter dated February 17, 1919, the Chaldean Patriarch, Emmanuel II Thomas, wrote from Baghdad to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Secretary of State: "I have the honor of informing you that only a week ago, through the delegation of Syria, I received the allowances of the Assyro-Chaldean seminarians and the 10,000 Italian pounds donated by His Holiness to be distributed to the poor of Mosul, both Catholics and those of other faiths."

Likewise, on July 9, 1919, the Vicar General of the Chaldean Patriarchate of Constantinople, Archbishop Thomas Bajari, addressed his heartfelt thanks to Pope Benedict XV: "We can certify to you, most Holy Father, that the Chaldean widows and orphans who will be relieved by your benefits will not cease to bless your name, as well as the holy Catholic Church in the bosom of which they were born and in which they will die."

The letter of Pope Benedict XV to Sultan Muhammad V Reshad, dated September 10, 1915, is important as the pope raised his voice against the massacres of the Armenian nation, which "has already seen many of its sons sent to their deaths."

As for Mgr. A. Dolci, his role was very active as apostolic delegate in Constantinople. He wrote several letters and reports to the Vatican Secretariat and tried to intervene with the Ottoman authorities to stop the persecution of Christians.

AB: You mention also the research effort undertaken by Professor Georges-Henri Ruyssen, who published documents related to Assyro-Chaldeans from the Vatican archives covering the period 1915-18. Could you elaborate on that?

JY: The Vatican archives are worth noting, as they are very enlightening on the Assyro-Chaldean tragedy. On this subject, it is necessary to point out the considerable work undertaken by my friend, Professor Georges-Henri Ruyssen. Here, I refer to his work1

These documents, based on the archives of the Holy See, appear at just the right time. At a time when more and more attention is being paid to the Christians of the East, in particular to the Assyrian-Chaldeans of Iraq and Syria, they are a very useful addition to understand the Assyro-Chaldean question and, beyond that, of the history of the Middle East for the period 1908-1938, both pivotal and determining dates. Everything is in there. These volumes, well documented and informed by the best Vatican sources, provide us with additional proof that we were facing a genocidal drama in 1915-1918. The symbol of this is the photos that adorn the three volumes, those of the Chaldean bishops who suffered martyrdom in 1915 and 1918: Bishop Abraham Professor Yacoub, Thomas Audo and Addaï Scher.

This accomplished work by Professor Georges Ruyssen is an inexhaustible mine of facts and data of the order of excellence, much of it unpublished, covering the period indicated. It sheds light on social realities as well as on the life of the local Churches, especially the Chaldean Catholics in their regional environment, on their internal state, and even on the contradictions of their clergy, and also on the sister-churches of the "Nestorians" and the Syriacs. We are informed about the important role of Pope Benedict XV, the life of the Latin missionaries in the Middle East and their commitment to the indigenous populations, as well as the rivalries between the Catholic and Protestant missionaries. As we read the documents, we realize how active the Churches were and how much they relied on the Pope and his various departments of the Roman Curia, in particular the Secretariat of State, Propaganda de Fide and the Congregation for the Oriental Church.

AB: I very much liked the concepts you deal with in chapter 13, namely the philosophical, political and moral reflections on the genocide. Could you elaborate on the theological interpretations including forgiveness?

JY: This tragedy has eschatological and philosophical, political and ethical dimensions, related to the meaning of history, on the responsibility of the belligerents, on the influence of the Bible on the Assyrians, on the relationship between law and force, on political regimes and democracy, as well as on the great powers versus the small nations and on the reason for wars.

The personalities who witnessed the tragedy of 1915-1918 have often produced ethical, moral, theological and political reflections on this drama and on war and peace.

Burning questions are thus raised: the reasons for this "murderous madness" and the death sentences, the role of the Turks and their responsibility, that of the Kurds and Persians, explaining the German-Turkish coalition during the war, the question of morality in alliances, the attitude towards Islam, the rules governing wars, political power in ancient Mesopotamia and today, the need for national unity and the overcoming of internal divisions. In addition, the question of good, evil and punishment, the Bible as a historical corpus and religious book. There are also reflections on human nature and its perils (seduced by praise and flattery), justice and forgiveness, the succession of empires and the birth of new states. One also reads reflections on the right to self-determination, on the moral obligations of nations, the fate of minorities and the importance of education.

On the theological reading of history, it cannot be said often enough that the Assyrians cultivated an intense love for the Bible as a corpus serving as a historical and hermeneutic key, as wisdom texts and as a theological source and symbolic whole. In other words, their perception of national and universal history was drawn from the Bible, from which they also derived their moral precepts and their vision of politics. It weighed heavily and in a particular way in the formation/formulation of their conceptions, the formatting of their mental representation, influencing their consciousness for a long time, because theology constituted the dominant form of expression of social and political life. In other terms, the Pentateuch, the historical books, the wisdom literature, the prophetic literature, etc. founded their perception and were a cultural frame of reference that served them, like an inexhaustible fountain, as if the Bible became the matrix of their culture, constantly fertilizing their memory.

However, things have begun to evolve since the revolution brought about by archaeological excavations, epigraphic discoveries and historical, philological and ethnographic studies in the Middle East since 1840. On this heritage, with its distant resonances, the numerous deciphered Assyrian and Babylonian Annals and Chronicles have sometimes put certain historical accounts into perspective. Added to this is the access to education, which allowed them to regenerate themselves, to restore their self-awareness and to progressively acquire the self-determination of their destiny. Therefore, one rediscovers with amazement the greatness of a past and even wonders about its incessantly unearthed treasures, which has made it possible to lift the veil over the Mesopotamian civilization confronted with the Bible allowing judgments to be made more nuanced. Added to this, a new page has been opened, including for biblical studies, which are thus inserted into the historical time of this Syro-Mesopotamian Middle East, which explains the Scriptures well, each book lending itself to multiple variations in the perspective of a historical-critical analysis.

AB: As to the issues related to responsibility of the belligerents what is your position with respect to punishment?

JY: In the aforementioned chapter, I have dealt in detail with the issue of the responsibility of the warring parties, giving voice to numerous authors who were witnesses to the tragedy.

I myself, in my more than 40 years of research, have set myself the task of writing the contemporary history of our Assyrian people, focusing on the tragic period of 1915-1918, which is the cause of their misfortune. In this way, I want to restore and make known the truth and thus try to bring justice to this suffering people who are my own. For the rest, it is up to the political, religious and social decision-makers to decide on the measures to be taken

I see that the memory of the Assyrians is still alive and begins to tear away the shadow that covered it, so that the events do not disappear from their collective memory with time. Nowadays, the issue has gained international prominence and is receiving more and more attention. It has gradually entered the universal consciousness, has taken its place in the field of reflection and has acquired a status in the field of academic research, compensating for the lack of global studies on the issue.

AB: Professor Yacoub, thank you very much for the interview.

1 G.-H. Ruyssen (a cura di), La questione caldea e assira 1908-1938. Documenti dell'Archivio Segreto Vaticano (ASV), dell'Archivio della Congregazione per le Chiese Orientali (ACO) e dell'Archivio Storico della Segreteria di Stato, Sezione per i Rapporti con gli Stati (SS.RR.SS). Tomo I (16-VI-1908 -- 29-V-1923), tomo II (1-VI-1923 -- 7-X-1930), tomo III (8-X-1930 -- 16-V- 1938), tomo IV, Indici analitici, Pontificio Istituto Orientale et Valore Italiano, Roma, 2019.

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