Year of the Sword: The Assyrian Christian Genocide: A history
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THE horrors of the Armenian genocide a century ago, which left swaths of Eastern Anatolia bereft of its indigenous Christian population, and the subsequent destruction of many of its historic churches have been recalled by the canonisation as martyrs of the victims of this holocaust by the Armenian Church.
Alongside the suffering of Armenian Christians, however, were the sufferings of another Christian minority: the Assyrians of the Church of the East, often designated as Nestorian, which at an earlier stage in its history pioneered a missionary expansion reaching as far as China.
Through the Assyrian Mission established by Archbishop Benson in 1885, the Church of England had close links with this ancient Church in south-east Turkey and Persian Azerbaijan, a story well-told by J. F. Coakley in The Church of the East and the Church of England (OUP, 1982).
In this carefully researched book, Professor Joseph Yacoub, himself an Assyrian, and Emeritus Professor at the Catholic University of Lyon, who has written extensively on the Christian minorities of the Middle East, tells in harrowing detail the forgotten story of the determined destruction and attempted eradication of the Assyrians in 1915, which was for them, Seyfo, ”The Year of the Sword”.
When the American missionary doctor Asahel Grant came across this ancient Christian community in the mountains of Mesopotamia in the early 19th century, he thought he had discovered the lost tribes of Israel, and publishing a book, The Nestorians, or the Lost Tribes. But this ancient Church, impoverished and restricted in many ways, maintained its life and worship in Christian villages in the rugged mountain valleys of Hakkari, and in the plain of Urmia.
Its Patriarch, Mar Shimun, who succeeded from uncle to nephew, had resided in the village of Kotchanes since 1662. There was a rich library of documents and manuscripts. When, some years ago, I travelled to Hakkari, little if anything was left of Kotchanes and the Christian civilisation that it represented.
In this place, where three empires — the Ottoman, the Persian, and
the Russian — came together, the Assyrians and other Christian minorities were caught up in the power struggles between them, and the pressures for ethnic identity and Turkification of both the expiring Ottoman Empire and the nationalist Young Turks, who were its successors. The Assyrians were also vulnerable to the rivalries of the Kurdish tribes, who sometimes carried out atrocities at the instigation of the local Turkish authorities, and sometimes instigated such atrocities themselves.
Yacoub, whose own family suffered in this genocide, has given us meticulous coverage of barbaric massacres, torture, rape, and abuse of women and children, carried out against the Assyrian villages and communities in Hakkari, Urmia, and elsewhere, 1915 being the critical year, although they continued for years afterwards. Yacoub provides us with two maps, of Anatolia and Eastern Anatolia in 1915, but I could have wished for another showing the location of the destroyed Assyrian villages that he meticulously lists and whose victims he numbers.
The Assyrians suffered when the Russians withdrew from Persian Azerbaijan, leaving the Assyrians exposed to Turkish and Kurdish attacks. In one village, “eighteen of the most beautiful young girls were selected and taken into the church where they were stripped naked and violated in turn on top of the Holy Gospels.”
Viscount Bryce in his preface to the English translation of Fr Joseph Naayem’s harrowing account of the treatment of the Assyrians noted how they were, together with the Armenians, “victims of the plan for exterminating Christianity root and branch, although the Turks had never ventured to allege that these communities had given any ground of offence.”
There were terrible tortures: nails torn out, feet shod like horses, priests skinned alive. In his preface to the Parliamentary Blue Book, Bryce noted that “the record of the rulers of Turkey for the last two or three centuries, from the sultan on his throne down to the district Mutessarif, is . . . an almost unbroken record of corruption, of injustice, of an oppression which often rises into hideous cruelty.”
The remnant of Assyrians left hoped that the League of Nations would grant them a safe haven, a territory where their faith and their culture might be protected and flourish. They were doomed to disappointment.
Yacoub provides us with the dark background to the contemporary destruction of the Christian minorities of Syria and Iraq by Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. There are the same terrible tortures; the same cultural destruction; the same refugees; the same longing for safe havens in ancestral homelands; and the same pleading for asylum in supposedly Christian nations. And the remnant of Assyrians still resident in the Middle East are among those minorities caught up in this repetition of the terrible tragedy of a century ago.
The Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell is a former Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.