While the 1915 genocide mostly affected the Ottoman Armenian population, the Syriac and Assyrian communities in the region were also marred by what they call Sayfo, or the massacre of the sword.
Although 15 June marks the 108th anniversary of a series of massacres in Siirt and Mardin, now in Turkey, and Tur Abdin, now in Syria, the mass killing and expulsion was spread over a much longer period throughout what is now southeast Turkey and the Azerbaijan province of Iran.
Elber Shleymun Rhawi from the European Syriac Union (ESU) said in an interview that the “extermination” of Mesopotamia’s Christian peoples began in 1910, and kicked into gear in April 1915, with what is now considered the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.
“Leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress, Cemal, Talat and Enver Pashas, barbarically massacred the women and the men, the young and the old, together with the [Ottoman secret police] Special Organisation and the collaborating Kurdish tribes that made up Hamidiye Regiments,” Rhawi said.
“More than half a million Syriacs, Assyrians and Chaldeans were violently murdered. Hundreds of thousands more were exiled from their homeland, while tens of thousands were forced to convert and deny their identity.”
With massacres and the genocide, Christian communities lost their properties, places of worship, and cultural legacy, Rhawi continued. “Survivors were convicted to a life of severe trauma and fear.”
There are an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Syriacs left in Turkey, outside of those who were forcibly converted to Islam and assimilated. The actual number remains unknown.
“The genocide against Christian peoples in the Middle East is one of the greatest crimes against humanity,” Rhawi said. “The global public and international powers taking action is vital to be able to condemn those who committed this unforgettable and undeniable crime, and to prevent new genocides.”
The ESU calls on Turkey to recognise the Sayfo as genocide, and to “stop covering up the truth and face their own history”, he continued.
Sweden, Armenia, Germany and the Netherlands recognise the Sayfo Genocide, while efforts continue in the US Congress for the recognition of another calamity, the 1933 Semele Massacre in Iraq.
Congresswoman Debbie Lesko has been presenting a bill to Congress annually since 2020, with the most recent resolution submitted last week.
On 6 June, Lesko re-introduced the bipartisan resolution to commemorate the “brutal” killing of 3,000 people and destruction of more than 60 villages. “It is my honor to once again introduce this important legislation,” she said. “The Assyrian community has suffered immense hardship throughout history.”
Syriac and Assyrian communities “lost two-thirds of their numbers to violence, famine, and disease inflicted upon them by hostile forces, and found themselves in a difficult predicament as new nation-states formed around them”, Lesko and other members of congress who signed the draft said.
“Assyrians had not been included in the Sykes-Picot Agreement between the British and French Governments after the First World War and were otherwise left vulnerable as refugees in the newly formed Kingdom of Iraq,” they said.
“The Government of Iraq rejected the Assyrian leaders’ request for autonomy and sought to cause division and animosity among them … In August 1933, after the surrender of those Assyrians who pledged their loyalties to the Government of Iraq and laid down their arms in the interest of peace, the armed forces of the Government of Iraq targeted them for calculated slaughter that came to be known as the Semele Massacre,” they added.
The resolution calls for the official recognition of the Semele Massacre, and rejection of efforts to associate the United States with it.