The Assyrians in the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust
Posted: Friday, August 25, 2000 at 02:14 PM UT
The Assyrians in the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust
Panayiotis Diamadis B.A., Grad. Dip. Ed. (Secondary), M.A. (Pass) University of Sydney
Delivered at the "Assyrians After Assyria: Persecutions and Massacres of Syriac-speaking Christians" International Conference
University of Sydney, Sunday July 2 2000
We have repeatedly heard today the terms "Assyrian Genocide" and "Assyrian Holocaust". Other speakers have dealt with the responsibility of Germany in the decimation of the Assyrian nation, with the way the Christian Assyrians were abandoned by the so-called "Great Powers" in their hours of greatest need, when one would expect a modicum of Christian solidarity and compassion, as well as with the issue of the identity of the Assyrian people. I will be examining the reason we are here today: do the numerous and repeated persecutions and massacres of the Assyrian people constitute a case of genocide? I hope that by the end of my presentation, you will have formed an opinion based on evidence rather than emotion.
These are the words of Talaat Pasha, Minister of the Interior in the Young Turk government. Talaat was not a Turk, but was of Pomak descent. These extracts come from his memoirs, published posthumously in the New York Times current affairs journal "Current History" in November 1921. The "Arabs" that Talaat wrote about are almost certainly references to the Assyrians as only Christians, and in Palestine Jews, were subject to the deportation laws. This is how one of the 20th century's worst mass murderers attempted to excuse the orgy of death and destruction that engulfed east Thrace and Asia Minor between 1914 and 1924.
The Armenian Genocide is relatively well-known throughout the world. Less well known is the Hellenic Genocide of eastern Thrace, Ionia, Pontos and Kappadokia. Virtually unknown is the Assyrian Genocide.
As we heard at last year's Portraits of Christian Asia Minor Conference at Macquarie University, the events that led to the disappearance of Christianity from the lands where it thrived for some 1900 years, can collectively be called the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust. In the space of one decade, the Christian population of the regions that now constitute the Republic of Turkey went from some five million souls to less than 700 000. This figure has since fallen to less than 200 000. The question that presents itself today is does Christianity have a future in Asia Minor in the 21st century?
The most widely quoted and referred to definition of genocide is that included in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention of Genocide. This document was drafted by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, in 1945 at the request of the newly-formed United Nations' Organisation. The Convention was adopted by the United Nations' General Assembly as Resolution 96 on December 11 1946.
ARTICLE I: The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.
ARTICLE II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
The key words in this legal definition of what constitutes genocide are "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part."
How does this genocide occur? How does one group of people arrive at the decision to murder en masse another group of people? Scholars of the Shoah (the Jewish Holocaust of the 1940s) have developed a theoretical framework for beginning to answer this question. Professor Colin Tatz, Founder and Director of the Centre of Genocide Studies at Macquarie University, has named this framework "The Four Building Blocks of Genocide".
Firstly, there must exist an ancient hatred between the perpetrators and the victims. Secondly, there must exist the means and opportunity to execute the plan, usually but not always, under the cover of a war situation. Thirdly, the organisational and technological capability to execute the plan. Fourthly, the actual killings.
Since the rise of Islam in the 600s Christian Era, the mountains and valleys of historic Assyria have constituted the "border lands" between the Christian and Islamic Worlds. The Syriac-speaking inhabitants of the Mardin, Tur Abdin, Hakkari and Mosul regions have consequently been the "meat" in the Christian-Muslim "sandwich". Their homeland has been dominated by various Islamic dynasties for the last thirteen centuries. Being Christians in a predominantly Islamic society, they were seen as "giavour" (infidels) by their Muslim Turkish overlords.
As we heard earlier from Dr Erica Hunter during the presentation of her paper "The Conversion of the Turkic Tribes", it was Assyrian missionaries who brought Christianity to the Turkic tribes of Central Asia centuries before their arrival in Asia Minor. How ironic then, that the "civilisers" of the Turkic tribes were to become their victims.
During the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Orhan (1326-1362), the first recorded mass kidnapping of male Christian children occurred. The abductees were imprisoned, converted to Islam and Turkified; they formed the infamous Janissary (from the Turkish words Yeni Ceri, New Troops) corps. Young girls were also taken, converted to Islam and kept as harem girls in the palaces of senior military and civil officials. The "lucky" ones were married to their abductors after being forcibly converted to Islam. The children of these girls were subsequently raised as Muslim Turks.
Initially, the mass abductions occurred every five years. It was soon stepped up to every two or three years. A policy of systematic Islamization and Turkification of the Christian subject peoples, often by violent means, was introduced. This had the effect of rapidly boosting the Muslim population, strengthening Ottoman power and undermining the native Christian peoples. In the 1670s, the policy of forced Islamization reaches its zenith. Entire districts of Asia Minor, Pontos and the Aimos (Balkan) Peninsula were given the choice of adopting Islam or being killed.
Following a mutiny in June 1826 against the formation of a Western-style army, the Janissary Corps was formally abolished. Most of the Janissaries were killed during the mutiny. Those who were captured alive were executed. The regular paedomazoma (child-gathering) was also ended. The official policy of forced Islamization was not ended until November 2 1839 when the Great Powers forced Sultan Abdul Mejid to issue the Hatt-i-Sherif decree, guaranteeing freedom of religion guaranteed for all the peoples of the Empire.
In the 1700s, Orthodox Russia conducted a series of wars against the Islamic states of the Crimean Peninsula and the Caucasus. Tatars, Chechens, Ingush, Abkhaz and other Caucasian Muslims streamed into the territory of the Ottoman Empire. By the autumn of 1829, Russian armies had reached Argyroupolis (Gumushane) in eastern Pontos and Theodosioupolis (Erzerum) in western Armenia.
Following the Russian defeat in the war of 1829-1830, these regions were given back to the Ottoman Empire. The retreating Russian troops were followed by many Christians fearful of Turkish reprisals. The Crimean War of (1853-56), the Russian conquest of Abkhazia (1875), the RussoTurkish War of 1877-78, the Kretan Uprising of 1894-98 (which resulted in the autonomy of Krete and the expulsion of all Muslims from the island) and most importantly, the Balkan Wars (1912-13), continued this "exchange" of Christian and Muslim populations. The Muslim population of Asia Minor was greatly increased by the influx of some 200 000 refugees as the Christians continued to reduce in number.
This war (the Balkan Wars) was one of the greatest calamities Turkey ever suffered. It was a sign of the impending collapse of the Empire. "But the land loss was not the whole picture. More than one million refugees streamed in from Bulgaria towards Istanbul. They were settled in Rumeli (east Thrace) and in Anatolia (Asia Minor)." After this date, Turkish refugees became a common sight until the end of the Ottoman Empire. They started leaving the Balkans in droves. Tens of thousands of Turkish civilians were put to the sword. Large cities like Adrianople and Istanbul overflowed with refugees. For months, they slept in mosques and courtyards. For thousands of Turkish families, the wounds of the war are still not forgotten.
Yakup Hidirsah wrote the following about events in historic Assyria during this period:
The main problem starts after the year of 1842. There are Armenian sources indicating that Bedirhan Bey adopted an assimilation policy in religious sense because he started to have "khutbah" (a plain sermon) delivered in the mosques after he declared "his emirate" and had coins minted under his name. Bedirhan Bey was considering himself as the spiritual leader of the areas liberated from the Turkish sovereignty. (15)
After placing its "Sacred Unification" on strong foundations, for Bedirhan the period of dragging the Kurds into "sacred war" against the Christian peoples in the region would begin. Soon he started to display his real face and with the call he made to the peoples of the Syriac, Nestorian, Chaldean and even Armenian Christians, he required them to increase the tributes they had been paying to the Ottomans by a few times. At the same he sought the ways of to send them away from their homes and seize their possessions and lands. In fact his real intention that was his real aim and tax was only an excuse.
It was not possible for Syriac, Nestorian and other non-Muslim communities which strove to survive with difficulty to accept these harsh conditions put forward by Bedirhan the Ruler. Therefore, they replied a negative answer to Bedirhan.
This was what Bedirhan the Ruler was expecting for and he called the Kurdish Muslims to fight "a sacred war" against Christian Syriac, Nestorian, Chaldean and Armenian people and ordered to massacre and annihilate them....
We will try to summarize what happened after that according to the historical documents and sources. We can also find information in the Kurdish sources concerning the wild massacre perpetrated by Bedirhan Bey against the Christian peoples. Kurdish writers and historians also admit this massacre carried out by Bedirhan Bey.
On this subject, the Kurdish historian M.Emin Zeki states that:
Also the Kurdish writer Dr. Celilé Celil admits the following on the issue:
Kurdish writer M. Kalman almost approves the liquidation of Nestorians and Syriacs whom some writers mention that they have been massacred on the pretext of their not "paying the taxes": "Who, for what reason should clash with the communities paying taxes and providing troops".  M. Kalman also adds to his words:
These sentences obviously reveal the fact that the only reason for the massacres against the Syriacs, Nestorians and the Chaldeans by the Kurds was not the "taxes". As a matter of fact, M Kalman makes a confession and says:
So, the reason for the massacre was not "tax", but the bigotry of the fanatical Muslim Kurds against Christian belief. Just at this point we would like to cite the remarkable and eloquent words of the British writer William Eagleton:
Many of the resources confirm that the Kurds under the command of Bedirhan massacred more than ten thousand Nestorian, Chaldean and Syriac Christians. The Kurdish writers, for an unknown reason, keep the number of victims of this savageness secret. For example, M. Kalman, in his words we have cited above, takes the massacre as a simple, ordinary incident and says "killed many people" and tries to keep the truth as a secret. The Armenian writer Garo Sasuni, expresses his views on Bedirhan as follows:
This then was the socio-political climate in Asia Minor on the eve of World War One. The existing long-standing enmity between the politically and militarily dominant Muslims and the economically dominant Christians was at exploding point by January 1914. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees were roaming Asia Minor, resentful of anything that reminded them of the Christians who had forced them out of their homes. These "Rumeli" refugees ("Rumeli" means "land of the Rum", the Orthodox Christians) would play a key role in the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust.
For a case of mass murder to be genocide, the intent to exterminate an entire group of people must exist. The Young Turks came to power in the Ottoman Empire in a coup d'etat in 1908, which effectively deposed Sultan Abdul Hamid II. At the Ittihad ve Terakke I Cemiyati (Committee for Union and Progress) Annual Congress in Thessalonike in late September - early October 1910, the Congress' President remarked that "it was impossible to recruit Christians" to the police force as "no reliance could be placed" upon them.
At the following year's Congress, again held in Thessalonike, chaired by Talaat Pasha, one of the Young Turks' chief ideologues, Dr Behaeddin Sakir told the assembly "The nations that remain from the old times in our empire are akin to foreign and harmful weeds that must be uprooted. To clear our land."
This use of biological terms like "harmful weeds" and "bacillus" which is how the Nazis referred to Jews is common in hate literature. In order to kill on the scale we are talking about, a degree of dehumanisation is required. The victims must cease being human. They must stop being people in the minds of the perpetrators, so that the majority of the population will accept the plans for mass murder of the leadership. So the indigenous Christian peoples of Asia Minor, including the Assyrians became "foreign and harmful weeds that must be uprooted" from their own homelands.
Once the Young Turks seized power, they proceeded to systematically replace the old Ottoman bureaucrats with young, educated and uneducated, Muslims fired with the passion to create Turan, a Turkic state stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Great Wall of China. By 1914, the extreme wing of the Ittihadists were in complete control of the bureaucracy and the military. So the plan and the means to implement it existed. What remained, was the opportunity to execute these plans.
In January 1914, the populations of Hellenic villages in east Thrace began being deported to Hellas (those who still had money after the repeated looting and extortions of the Ottoman officials) or to Asia Minor (those who did not). On May 14, Talaat Pasha sent the following telegram to the Governor of Smyrne, Rahmi Bey:
Even before World War One had begun, the Ottoman Government was planning and ordering the uprooting and destruction of its Christian population.
This came in the form of World War One, which began in late July 1914. The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers almost immediately, declaring war on the Triple Entente on July 20. What was the Assyrian reaction to this turn of events?
The Assyrian Patriarch Mar Benyamin Shimun initially sought the protection of the Ottoman Government from Kurdish assaults in return for the neutrality of the Assyrian people, a people with a fierce warrior tradition.
On June 23, 1915, Haidar Beg, the Vali of Mosul advances his Turkish forces along with the Kurdish irregulars and attacks the Upper and the Lower Tiari, forcing the Assyrians further into the mountains. Casualties are heavy on both sides. On the third day of August 1914, Patriarch Mar Benyamen Shimun meets with the Vali of Van, Tahisan Pasha. The outcome of this meeting calls for the support of the Assyrians in Turkey. They are granted all necessary assistance from the Turkish government. However, this assistance is conditional. The Assyrian people's neutrality in the advent of war, is stipulated. Assyrians must refrain from forming any alliances with Russia. The Patriarch's advice to Van was that the Assyrian attitude would be conditioned by that of the Turks towards the Christians in general and the Assyrian nation in particular. 
What followed soon after, was to mark a turning point in our nation's history. Violent raids on Assyrian villages in Turkey - Shamsdin, Norduz, Albaq, Mar Bishu, Iyel and Gavar. Men and women in their attempt to flee their attackers, were captured, tortured and brutally slain. These assaults left the Patriach, Mar Benyamen Shimun, with little or no alternative.
The Assyrians of Persia were fairing no better than their brothers and sisters in Turkey. Russia's withdrawal from Persia, unbeknown to the Assyrians, was a cause for concern. The Assyrians "enjoyed", a somewhat protective existence, while Russia was in occupation of the north-western areas of Persia.
With the advent of Russia's re-deployment of her forces, between December 20 and 24 1914, the Muslim authorities of Urmia, having secretly organised a Holy War or Jehad, on the Christians, began to push the Assyrians out of their homes and villages. Some twelve thousand refugees braved the cold winter snow. Many dying on the roadside from exhaustion, starvation and other tragic circumstances.
Having finally reached the Persian border and upon entering Russian soil, the Assyrians discovered that one third of their fleeing populace had perished on the way, and that the total of the remainder, taken by the authorities, were more than 50 000 souls, including the Christians of Salmas and Khoi for Khoy). 
Several weeks earlier an assembly of Assyrian delegates, from the surrounding tribes in Turkey, under the leadership of the Patriach Mar Benyamen Shimun, decided to enter an understanding with the triple Entente. (the Allies - Great Britain, France and Russia), on April 12, 1915. A formal notification was dispatched on April 16 1915, whereby the Vali (Governor) of Van, Tahisan Pasha, was informed that owing to the recent needless attacks on Assyrian villages and the oppressive enviromnent that the villagers continued to live in, the Assyrian nation here and now proclaims herself to be "the smallest Ally of the Democratic nations".
Genocide is only possible when extensive resources are devoted to the destruction of the victim group, in our case the Assyrians. The entire Ottoman state was utilised in the undeclared war of the Young Turks against the Christians of the Ottoman Empire. Talaat Pasha, Minister of the Interior, and Enver Pasha, Minister of War, set up the Teskilati Mahsusa (Special Organisation). Its purpose was to gather, organise and co-ordinate the foot-soldiers of the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust: bands of "Rumeli" refugees, violent criminals released from prison especially for this purpose and Kurdish tribesmen lured by the promise of loot. This disparate group constituted the infamous chetas (bandits).
The head of the Special Organisation was a man named Eshref Kushtsubashi. His deputy was Celal Bayar, the Provincial Responsible Secretary of the Committee, later to become President of the Republic of Turkey. From the Evros river in Thrace and the Aegean Sea to the Caspian Sea and Mesopotamia, the chetas, directed, controlled and organised from Constantinople, spread death and destruction throughout Asia Minor, indiscriminately deporting and butchering Assyrians, Armenians and Hellenes. Religious denomination did not matter: Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Oriental were all force marched from their towns and villages and either killed outright or left to die of hunger, thirst, disease or exhaustion.
Exactly as the world saw during the 1940s, in the middle of a world war, the Ottoman Empire devoted enormous resources to the massacre of nearly half the population of Asia Minor. At one stage, the Empire was fighting on no less than four separate battle fronts: the Gallipoli Peninsula, the Caucasus Mountains, Mesopotamia and Palestine.
Every available man, weapon, automobile and rail car was required for war effort. Yet we have Australian prisoners-of-war reporting trainloads of Armenian deportees coming from north-east Asia Minor to the Taurus Mountains. Soldiers needed to fight at the fronts were instead sent to escort columns of Pontian Hellenes on death-marches hundreds of kilometres in length and sent to the mountains of historic Assyria to burn Assyrian villages and kill every Assyrian they could lay their hands on.
The city of Edessa (Urfa/Urhai) did not lie anywhere near any of the battle-fronts. In January 1915, two German officers commanded units of the Ottoman Army (including heavy artillery) in attacking and destroying this ancient centre, massacring many of the Assyrian inhabitants.
In April that year, the Armenian Genocide began. Armenians were deported to the deserts of northern Syria and either massacred or left to die. A few months later, Djendet Bey, the Military Governor of Van, entered the city of Sairt, commanding a force of 8000 troops. He ordered his Kassab Tabouri (Butchers' Battalions) to massacre all the Christians of the district: Assyrian and Armenian alike.
Nor were the massacres restricted to the territory of the Ottoman Empire. In Persia's Urmiah region and in the Russian Caucasus, Ottoman troops slaughtered and destroyed everywhere they went. It was the assasination of Patriarch Mar Benyamin Shimun on March 3 1918 at the hands of the Kurdish chieftain Simko (also written as Symyko) that led to the epic exodus of the Assyrians from their mountain homeland to the marshes of Baquba in southern Mesopotamia.
Notwithstanding their resistance throughout a difficult and unconventional war, their condition in Persia at the onset of summer 1918 had become untenable, and they had no alternative but to retreat towards the British forces in Mesopotamia. Travelling some 300 miles south-easterly in helter-skelter panic, with their families, their livestock and their possessions, they [the Assyro-Chaldeans] finally reached Hamadan, having been decimated by unremitting attacks on all flanks by Turks, Kurds and Persians. Scorched by the heat of summer, and ravaged by Typhus, dysentery, smallpox and cholera, children and elderly alike fully spent by fatigue and fever were abandoned along the route, the dead and dying dotting the path of theirflight. Finally, 20 000 of them were lost to the ordeal. The survivors reached Hamadan where they made contact with the British troops. 
The First Wolrd War formally ended with the Armistice signed on November 11 1918. The Ottoman Empire had surrendered to the Allies twelve days earlier. By this time, some two million Christians had been either massacred or forcibly converted to Islam. The end of the "Great War" did not mean the end of the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust. The killing of the region's indigenous Christians went on for almost another four years, culminating in the destruction of Smyrne (Izmir) in September 1922.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, that finally brought peace to Asia Minor, did not include the Assyrians as an official minority. The result is that to this day, the Turkish state describes Assyrians as "Turco-Semites", "Christian Kurds", "Semitic Turks" anything but Assyrians. This is part of the homogenisation process Drs Deniz and Donef referred to in their presentations: everyone in Turkey is a Turk.
Kurdish and Arab attacks on Assyrians escalated, culminating in the August 1933 Simele Massacres across northern Mesopotamia. An estimated 3000 Assyrians perished in that single month alone. Since then, Assyrians have endured massacre, discrimination and persecution. They have endured forced Turkification and Arabisation. Their churches are bombed, their schools closed, their men killed and their villages relocated.
For those who believe deportations and executions of Assyrians are things of a distant past, let me mention Anfil. On September 24 1988, 250 Assyrians and Yezidis were ordered to report to the police station at Baharka, northern Mesopotamia. Those who did so were arrested, put on a military bus and never seen again.
On Wednesday evening (June 28), we saw a video on the villages and monasteries of Tur Abdin in south-east Asia Minor, filmed by Dr George Kiraz. Village after village was either deserted or had recently become Kurdish. One image in particular has stuck in my mind. Two villages (one Christian, the other Kurdish) sit side-by-side in the foothills of the mountains where guerrillas of the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) are active, fighting for an independent Kurdish state. On the pretext of this guerrilla activity, the Turkish Army deported the population of the Christian village to another settlement in the valley, further away from the mountains. As Dr Kiraz told us with more than a hint of bitterness in his voice, the Kurdish village was left untouched. This is a familiar story across historic Assyria.
The Syrian Orthodox Federation of Australia made a submission to the Australian Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade hearings on "Australia's Efforts to Promote and Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief" in mid-1999. In it SOFA listed no less than 44 unsolved murders of Syrian Orthodox faithful in the Mardin and Hakkari regions of south-east Asia Minor between June 1987 and September 1997 alone.
In closing, let us return to the United Nations definition of what constitutes genocide.
Killing members of the group. The majority of people in this room today would have lost at least one family member in the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust 1914-1924 or in the numerous pogroms and persecutions in Turkey and Iraq since then. The Ottoman, the Turkish and the Iraqi authorities have repeatedly organised the deportation and mass murder of Assyrian men, women and children in the 20th century, with the express aim of eliminating them as a cohesive group. Not simply force them out of the territory of the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey or the Kingdom, now Republic, of Iraq, but wipe them out completely.
Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group. The Assyrian people have endured, and continue to endure the terrorism of the governments of Turkey and Iraq. Where someone is shot to death by a Turkish or Iraqi soldier in the streets of Van or Simele, or is left by Turkish or Iraqi guards to die of starvation in the desert is irrelevant. The intent to exterminate the victim group remains. Only the methods change. Murders of Assyrian men and women in Turkey and Iraq continue to go on unsolved. Churches are seized by the state and converted into mosques or animal pens. Teaching of one of the world's oldest spoken languages is effectively forbidden in the land where it thrived for centuries. The official administrative and psychological pressure to become a Turk or an Arab has forced the indigenous people of south-east Asia Minor and northern Mesopotamia, the Assyrian people, to emigrate to lands where an Assyrian can freely be an Assyrian.
Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. What is the difference between being shot, stabbed, burned alive in your home, slaughtered in your fields to being made to walk to death? Whether the state leaves deportees to die in the desert or in the mountains or orders its soldiers to shoot to kill, the result and the responsibility for the ensuing deaths remain the same.
Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group. Deportation, endless forced marches, hunger, thirst, exposure and disease brought on by various Ottoman, Turkish and Iraqi regimes deliberately left little room for pregnancy and birth, to replace those who were lost. This is not to say Assyrian refugees did not have babies. They did. Bringing forth life in the face of such death is the ultimate act of resistance.
Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. This has been a practice of the Turks in Asia Minor since the 1300s. We will probably never know just how many Christian boys and girls were kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and raised as Turks. The boys became Jannissaries. The girls concubines and wives. To this day, Assyrian girls in particular, are abducted by Turks and Kurds in historic Assyria, a practice aimed at forcing their marriage to Muslims.
The United Nations Convention states that any of these acts, committed with the intent to destroy a certain group, in whole or in part, constitute genocide. The Assyrian people have suffered not only one, but all, of these acts. The Assyrian Genocide, indeed the Christian Asia Minor Holocaust continue to this day.
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 The Pomaks are the indigenous inhabitants of the mountain regions of Thrace (now divided between Hellas and Bulgaria) who converted from Christianity to Islam in the 1600s.  Oztuna (1967): p. 117