Syria’s Assyrians threatened by extremists

On the 99th anniversary of the Sayfo massacres, which targeted Assyrians, Bishop Dionysius Jean Kawak recalls the painful ordeal the Assyrian population went through, in addition to the suffering facing all Syrians, including Christians and Muslims.

al-monitor Syrian and Iraqi Assyrian Christian women celebrate the new year in Damascus with folk dances and songs, April 1, 2004. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri.

Topics covered

syria, persecution, christians, christian minorities

Apr 28, 2014

Ninety-nine years were not enough for the Assyrians to forget the pain inflicted by the bloody massacre known as the Sayfo massacre. Meanwhile, the heated situation in the Levant is burdening Christians in general, and the Assyrian Church in particular, amid growing talk about the danger of yet another wave of displacement. Assyrians can trace some of their origins to the Aramean people, and the Assyrian language (Syriac) — which is a dialect of Aramaic — is the language used in the Christian churches in the Levant. The Assyrians converted to Christianity when the Apostle Peter adopted Antioch as residence for the patriarchate seat and spread the precepts of Christianity in the region. He then appointed Bishops Evodius and Ignatius, who established the united church in the city. Dozens of patriarchs followed, ending with Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II Karim, who was elected as successor to late Ignatius Zakka I Iwas.

The headquarters of the church moved from Antioch to Iraq, then Mardin, Homs and Damascus, which has accommodated the Orthodox Syriac Patriarchy since 1959. There are around 4 million people in the parish, and they are distributed between India, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Egypt and to a lesser extent in Europe, specifically Germany. There are 28 parishes in these countries, and the center of the patriarchy in Bab Touma, Damascus, is one of the major centers in Syria, where there is Saint George Cathedral and Saint Ephrem Convent in Maarat Saidnaya.

Demographically-speaking, the period between 1915 and 1923 constituted the peak of displacement of Assyrians along with Armenians from the north of Al-Jazira (Upper Mesopotamia) to the center of the country (Syria). Then, there was similar Kurdish displacement. Sources indicated that the Assyrians were persecuted during the French occupation after they refused to convert to Catholicism. The sources also indicated that they were displaced again after they fought with the Kurds in Amouda in Hasakah province in 1937.

The number of Assyrians in Syria is estimated at 400,000, and they are distributed between Hasakah, Qamishli, Malikiya and Aleppo, which accommodates most of them. Assyrians are less present in Damascus and Saidnaya, and 350,000 Assyrians live abroad.

According to information, Assyrians built churches wherever they settled, while preserving their own prayer and music rituals. This clearly appears in the Assyrian neighborhood in Aleppo, where displaced Assyrians from the Turkish Urfa region reside, and in Qamishli and Hasakah, where Assyrian hymns, prayers and traditions live on.

Massacre and displacement

The Assyrians describe the incidents they underwent during the Ottoman rule as the “Sayfo massacres” (the origin of the word is Aramaic and means “sword” or “year of the sword”). During that time, the authorities were accused of helping Kurdish groups to target Assyrians and Chaldeans as well as Armenians. In the aftermath, the wave of displacement into Syria, southeast Turkey and Iran started.

According to historical sources, the Turks’ view of Assyrians was one of the reasons that triggered their displacement, and they were also accused of communicating with the Russian state. Others believe that the Ottomans thought that the Assyrians wanted independence and, therefore, the sultanate decided to displace them to remote regions. The Kurds got involved with the leaders of the Young Turks party who convinced them that the Assyrians jeopardize their existence.

Moreover, books that document this period of time mention that the Ottoman army and partisan groups launched attacks against dozens of villages in the east and south of Turkey in 1932. The attacks reached Diyarbakir and Deir ez-Zour. Moreover, arrests and executions targeted inhabitants of these regions who had left for Syria, specifically Aleppo and its surroundings, as well as north of Hasakah. Arab tribes played a major role in welcoming them and hiding from the Ottomans, and they saved many of those who were stranded in the Syrian desert and al-Jazira.

Many Assyrian families still live in these regions, and they constitute a large percentage of Christians in northern Syria, in addition to Assyrians who came from Iraq after the 1933 massacre also known as the Simele Massacre. Dozens of Assyrian sources spoke about genocides in these regions, where men were slaughtered and their corpses thrown in the Tigris River. Some groups launched attacks on the other citizens in these villages and killed or expelled them.

Bishop Jean Kawak

The Patriarchal Office Director in the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Levant Assyrian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Bishop Dionysius Jean Kawak believes that the danger today is not focused on the Assyrian Church alone but also on the Syrian people, be they Muslims or Christians. The threat surrounds this authentic Syrian mix.

“The threat we are facing from extremist groups does not only affect Assyrians, but extends to the Christians in general, and even the Muslims. This danger is directed against the moderate human being. I can only say that we will remain in Syria. All religions and sects will stand their ground, and the church will stay in this country. We will preserve this social combination that has been coexisting for long years. After all, we are part of this country. We, Assyrians and Christians, share the pain of our fellow Muslims,” Kawak told As-Safir.

Kawak said he was shocked by “the world’s silence over the Syrian incidents, starting from the attacks against churches, the abduction of the two bishops in Aleppo and reaching the dozens of incidents, which people are silently watching.”

At the same time, he considered the words of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insufficient after all that has happened. What is needed is an apology and exoneration after the heinous crime that was committed and that affected more than one million people at that stage, not to mention what the Armenian community went through.”

The bishop also emphasized that the church in Syria must stand its ground, along with its Christians. However, he noted that the dangerous security situation is pushing the Christians to leave, just like all Syrians.

“I do not like to describe Christians as minorities. We are Syrians, but we cannot ask people to stay under these circumstances. Christians, like all other Syrians, are suffering under these conditions and are obliged to leave,” he added.

Editor's note: A translation error in a previous version of this article incorrectly identified Assyrians as "originally Aramaic." Aramaic refers more commonly to the language family and not the Aramean people.

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