Assyrians - the Forgotten People, Part II
Under the strict rule of the Islamic 'millet' provision, the Assyrian nation was fragmented into a false mix of multitudes and robbed of its true national identity. None of the Assyrian Christian denominations were allowed to declare themselves Assyrian in nationality. The word "Assyrian" was a taboo. Other than freedom of worship, the 'millets' were categorized by the Islamic state as aliens in their traditional homeland. There was no room for dialogue. Retribution was swift and harsh for anyone that declared himself Assyrian or manifested disloyalty, especially church leaders. Execution was the norm in reprisal for dissension.
In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 17 October 1917, Russia drew back from the war. It withdrew its forces to within its borders and revoked the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement to which it was a party. Following its withdrawal, Turkish and Persian governments, in the name of Jihad (holy war) stirred up the Kurds against the Assyrians. The Kurdish hordes, descended on the Assyrian villages and towns, killing and pillaging in the name of Allah. They expelled thousands of families from Hakkari, Van. They were chased away, never allowed to return to their homes. About 25 thousand Assyrian families from Iran fled to Russia under protection of the Russian withdrawing troops. Wave after wave of other Assyrian families that could not reach the retreating Russian forces, fled in a south-westerly direction from Urmia, Iran to Mesopotamia to seek French and British protection. In the exodus, they met with their Assyrian brethren, who had been ejected from Hakkari, Turkey. The Assyrians regrouped, forming two flanks, to protect their families, continued with their march southwest. The Assyrians were received by the British forces and escorted to safety. Some stayed in refugee camps in Baquba and Hanaidi. Others stayed with relatives and their kinfolk in villages and towns in the northern province of Mosul. There they sought refuge in a bid to settle and make it their home. The Province of Mosul then still being part of South East of Ottoman Turkey, the dislodged 'Nestorian' Assyrians considered it part of their Assyrian territory. The British recruited Assyrian troops and formed the Assyrian Levy, as an auxiliary force, to guard and protect British military installations; and help maintain law and order. Some Assyrian tribesmen, of the Hakkari, now in Mosul, were unhappy with the way the British were treating the Assyrians in general, and decided to return home after the 1918 Armistice in defiance of the British orders. The Assyrian leaders felt that the British were not genuinely concerned about their people's future and that they were falling from favour. They were being used as mercenaries to promote British and Arab interest. The group went back to Hakkari and spent the winter months in their villages. But come Spring 1919, and the Turkish troops ejected them again and pushed them back beyond the newly drawn Turkish borderline into northern Iraq. During the mass exodus of 1914-1918 over 73 thousand Assyrian men, women and children perished from savagery of the Muslims, starvation, kidnapping and epidemic.
On the Assyrian issue, Great Britain, in consultation with the Iraqi government, wanted the 'Nestorian' Assyrians to integrate and become part of the Iraqi population mix, without change to the millet rule. The Assyrians disagreed. They expressed firm desire for self-rule, in the Mosul district, under the protection and supervision of the League of Nations. The Assyrians explained that Iraq, as an Islamic state, regardless of its form of government, treats its minorities in accordance with the Islamic harsh millet provision. The Assyrians had been through some terrible experiences under the theocratic millet provision during the period of the Islamic occupation. They refused to become subjects of the newly created Arab Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq, whose monarch claimed lineal descent from the Prophet Mohammed. The millet provision was an old Islamic tradition, part of its governing system, growing in popularity, and very rewarding to Islam in increasing the landmass of the Islamic Umma. The Iraqi government denied the allegations and described them as a gross exaggeration and untrue. Yet, neither Britain and France, nor the central government of Iraq would give any guarantees to discontinue its use and adopt democratic reforms. The Assyrians refused to remain under Islamic rule and rejected the proposal outright. The British sided with the Iraqi central government against the Assyrians. Britain, being the mandatory power, persisted in its demand. It pressured the Assyrian leadership to accept its decision and abide by the law of the land.. True, the millet provision is not stipulated in the constitution, yet like a hidden agenda, being part of the Islamic Shari'a law, is still being pursued as a matter of fact. Britain's adamant stance was interpreted by the overwhelming majority of the Assyrian people as betrayal and a prelude to encountering more trouble from the Anglo-Iraqi side. Britain's hard attitude gave the impression that the League of Nations was brought under its thumb, and would not hold her accountable for her actions. The Assyrians wanted peace. They wanted to be free. They just wanted to live on their soil, free from outside interference, as any other small nation. Being Christians and of good endurance, and having survived for centuries, did not mean that the Assyrians should accept being dispossessed of their homes and be denied of their human rights, yet according to the hidden agenda of Britain and France, they had no share in their plan. The Sykes-Picot Agreement left the Assyrians out in the cold.
In 1925, Great Britain annexed the Mosul Province to the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq. The deal was concluded by the Treaty of Ankara, signed in 1926 by Turkey, Iraq and Great Britain. The Assyrians were again left in the cold. Britain and France, failed to live up to the morality of the League of Nations and the objectives it was set for. They acted irresponsibly towards the Assyrian nation, with disrespect for human rights. They played the role of real estate agent, using the League of Nations as a brokerage, to maximize their profit from the sale of the Mosul Province, the last bastion of the Assyrian nation. The deal awarded the mandate's two new partners in business, Turkey and Iraq, additional bonus. Iraq was awarded Mosul Province (which should have been reserved for the Assyrians), and Turkey gained two and a half decades of supply of oil from the rich oil fields of Iraq. All three parties profiteered at the expense of the Assyrian disinherited and aggrieved people.
The British succeeded in their ploy in keeping the Assyrian people fragmented by resorting to sectarian bigotry. It widened the chasm between the united Assyrians of Urmia and Hakkari on the one hand and those of Iraq and Syria on the other. They reminded the Chaldean and Jacobite Assyrians of Iraq of their separation from the anathematized 'Nestorian' Assyrian Church of the East. They warned them not to join hands and refrain from any political engagement with them. They reminded them how in 1551 they united with Rome and termed themselves Chaldean to distinguish themselves from the ex-communicated Assyrian Church of the East now branded Nestorian - a misnomer labeled by the Councils of Ephesus (431AD). And later in 1559, how the Assyrian Chaldean Church split again and about half of its membership allied itself with the Syrian Jacobite Assyrians. The British scheme succeeded in keeping the Assyrian nation fragmented under deceitful specious names. Thus, the schism between the Assyrian Church of the East and other split church groups widened and remained divided. The Assyrian Church of the East had tried unsuccessfully, since the end of World War One, to reunite the splintered groups, in order that the Assyrians, as a whole, might gain more support for their cause. The Islamic 'millet' policy was keen to see that the Christian Churches, regardless of their origin, affiliation and denomination, remained in alienation from one another. The object of the 'millet' provision was and still is to control the political activity of the indigenous people and keep them at bay. The Armenian Church, being outside the direct sphere of influence of Arab Islamic rule, escaped fragmentation, although it too suffered terribly at the hands of the Turks. In Egypt, the Christian Copts, have already been choked and forced to abandon their native language and use the Arabic language instead. Except for liturgy in church, the Coptic language is disallowed. Copts have already lost their national identity. They are enumerated on the tally sheets of the population census as Arabs. The ultimate aim of the 'millet' provision is to Arabise/Islamise the non-Muslim communities.
The Iraqi government dismissed the Assyrian demand, and saw it as a threat. On the advice of the British, Iraq stalled. In the summer of 1933, the rejection developed into an open confrontation that led to the Semaili massacre. The Assyrians had placed their hope in the League of Nations, advocates of Human Rights and U.S. President Wilson's Fourteen (14) Points. Article 12 stipulated "... other nationalities ...under Turkish rule should be assured undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development..." According to the League, the Council recognized claims of smaller nationalities. The Assyrian people failed to understand the British motive behind their adamant rejection. Little they had known that the ill-fated Sykes-Picot Agreement had already robbed them of their home and denied them a share in the spoils of the First World War. The Anglo-French administration blamed the Assyrians for disobeying orders and accused the Iraqi army for being overly enthusiastic and trigger-happy. The British administration at the time seemed to lack the courage to make a roundabout face, admit its mistake and free the Assyrians from bondage.
All three parties profiteered from the deal at the expense of the Assyrian disinherited nation. Restoring Assyria in Mosul was against the Anglo-French interest. Instead of neutralizing the Arabs from Mosul, settling the displaced Assyrians in their traditional northern portion of Assyria, by order and under protection of the League of Nations, the British High Commission, covered up the Mandate's sinister deed, by alleging that the Assyrians were no more than a handful minority that hardly exceeded a few thousands, and would have had no bearing on the outcome of the decision. Britain's injudicious act constituted breach of trust in the League's laws of human rights. Britain and France, relied on the low population census of the 'Nestorian' Assyrians, based on the millet policy, to convince the League Council not to press for self-rule for the Assyrians. Only the Nestorians were designated as Assyrians by the British mandate. The rest of the Assyrian sects, forming a sizeable majority, were discounted when the Assyrian case was deliberated at the Council of the League of Nations. The aim of the mandates was to allow the League Council to assume the other Assyrian Christian sects were of different ethnic backgrounds. There was nothing farther from the truth. The mandates didn't want their folly to be exposed. Had honest population census been conducted for all the Assyrian sects of the various millet communities, scattered all over the Middle East, the overall number enumerated on the tally sheets would have exposed the fallacy of their dirty game. The Assyrians were warned to either toe the line or suffer dire consequence. Those who resisted were discredited, accused of subversion and dealt with severely. The mandatory powers denied them the right to appeal to the League of Nations. Iraq, being under the British Mandate, refused the Assyrians compensation for the loss of their Hakkari and Urmia territories. Although the northern highlands of Assyria were swarming with Kurds, there was still plenty of good grazing and arable land for the Kurds to be accommodated within that region. The redrawn map of Mesopotamia by Sykes-Picot had already been ratified by the League of Nations. Why the international community did not allot a portion of the dissolved Mesopotamia to the indigenous Assyrian displaced nation, is a question which as yet begs an answer from its successor, the United Nations.
The mandates realized that they had placed themselves in an awkward situation. To untangle themselves from the sticky problem they themselves had created, they tried unsuccessfully, to uproot the 'Nestorian' Assyrians and resettle them in a country outside the Middle East. In their books Assyria was finished and its people no longer existed. The mandates worked on this line of strategy: 'out of sight, out of mind'. In desperation, they sought the help of the Iraqi government. The mandates, jointly with the Iraqi government, decided on the millet provision i.e., use of force. As a matter of fact, the central government became very excited and overly enthusiastic. The Assyrians were ordered to accept the British-Iraqi conditions, or face military confrontation, punishment, then literal abandonment to a miserable fate. During the mandated period, most of the government officials were a mix of ex-Turkish Army officers, conservative Muslims and ultra-nationalists.
The Assyrian demand for some sort of self-rule was rejected outright. They were left without subsistence of any kind and forced into a life of reclusion and obscurity. Several tribal leaders were banished to foreign lands. They were scattered to the four winds and cut off from their people. They lived a solitary life and died in estrangement like General Agha Patros, Malik Lawku and Mar Shimun Eshai. A very small number of Assyrian leaders that succumbed to the pressure of the British, although long forgiven by the Assyrians, lost credibility and trust of their people. They were looked at by the Assyrians as vengefully uncompromising. They achieved nothing of substance for their people.
To isolate the Assyrian groups farther from one another and dissociate them from their kinfolk and quash their unitary policy, the mandatory powers, through the League of Nations applied the policy of metonymy. They not only created division among the Assyrian 'Nestorian' secular and sectarian leadership but extended it to the Syrianis, Chaldeans and Jacobites, describing them as Christian minorities, subjects of the existing states under the 'millet' provision. The ultimate objective of the mandatory powers was to integrate such 'minority groups' into the mainstream of the majority Arab occupiers. They gave the Assyrians territorial and sectarian names to portray them as culturally different, and in variance with one another, in dialect, denomination and geographical location. Their aim was to diminish, regionally, the overall number of the Assyrians, to look numerically insignificant and negligible. In Iraq, the Assyrian tribal leaders were stripped of their traditional leadership role. After World War One, their administrative functions were abolished. Whether hereditary, earned or bestowed upon, selected or appointed, they had been, until then, the authority that represented their people. The mandates indicated to the deposed leaders that their former titles, lost them their political bearing and official recognition. They were henceforth considered as ordinary men, obliged to conform to the local laws in all matters of administration which applied to all other citizens. Members of the Assyrian 'millet' were ordered to deal direct with local authorities instead of channeling their grievances in their old customary way through their Assyrian traditional Chiefs and Patriarch. Mar Shimun's authority was restricted to religious power only. His Holiness, in addition to his spiritual duties, was naturally concerned over his people's welfare and well being. His Holiness was advised, by the British through the Iraqi government, to refer all persons with non-sectarian civil matters to the local authorities. His Holiness was ordered to decline audience with Assyrians on secular matters. Such persons were not to come to His Holiness for advice and arbitration but to report direct to the local authorities. By limiting the Patriarch's semi-temporal power and abolishing the tribal law and the traditional titles of the tribal leaders of Rayyis, Malik and Khawr-Diqna elder, their ruling power came to an end. The image of the Assyrian officialdom ceased to exist. The chapter of the semi-political tribal system under which the Assyrians had lived for centuries was closed. With its closure, the Assyrians lost their political status. The government willfully deprived the leaders of their leadership role, considering their titles honorary only. They were considered as interim residents of foreign affiliation (taba'eyya ajnabiyya) and not accepted as lawful citizens unless they gave absolute guarantee of loyalty to the newly created Islamic governments. The Assyrians, in general, were denied compensation for their territorial losses and their grievances ignored. Separating the ejected 'Nestorian' Assyrians of Urmia (Iran) and Hakkari (Turkey) from the 'Chaldean' Assyrians of Mesopotamia (northern Iraq) and from the (Syriani) Assyrians of Syria, the British Government described the displaced Assyrians as a bunch of inconsequential primitive Nestorian peasants.
- the Forgotten People, Part I