*** DEBUG END ***

A flock faithful unto death

07 April 2017

Geoffrey Rowell reads the harrowing story of the extermination of Assyrian Christians

Year of the Sword: The Assyrian Christian Genocide: A history

Joseph Yacoub

Hurst £25


Church Times Bookshop £22.50


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.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)