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Symposium Syriacum VIII & The Assyrian Genocide Seminar
by Majidi Ann Warda, TAAAS - Chairperson of the Publication Committee
Posted: Wednesday, July 19, 2000 10:07 am CST

Symposium Syriacum VIII & The Assyrian Genocide Seminar
Sydney University - Australia
26 June 2000 – 2 July 2000

The Eighth International Congress for Syriac Studies (Symposium Syriacum VIII) saw over 120 eminent scholars from all over the world gather at Sydney University (Australia) between 26 June 2000 and 1 July 2000. This was followed by a seminar on the Assyrian Genocide entitled “Assyrians After Assyria” that also took place at Sydney University on Sunday 2 July 2000. The Symposium Syriacum VIII was organised by Professor Rifaat Obied, Head of the Semitic Studies Department at Sydney University. The Assyrians After Assyria Seminar was organised by the Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies at Macquarie University, in conjunction with Sydney University and The Assyrian Australian Academic Society (TAAAS). TAAAS was also one of the major sponsors of the Symposium, as well as being the financial steerer and co-organisor of the Seminar.

Academics, professors, students and guests gathered to discuss topics revolving around the Syriac language in antiquity and its survival into the present day. The opening of the Symposium included the Choir from the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East singing hymns written by Mar Ephrem and Mar Narsai, and conducted by Maestro Shura Michalian. This was followed by 4 days of lectures including such topics as ‘Hymns of the Syriac Church’, ‘Early Christian writings and manuscripts in the Aramaic language’ as well as the ‘Relationship of the Syriac Church with the Coptic church’ of Alexandria and the Maronite Church in Lebanon.

Among the more interesting lectures included a report on the project of creating an encyclopedia of Syriac heritage, given by Dr. George A. Kiraz. This project was started in 1993 during Dr. Kiraz’s time in Cambridge. Originally, the encyclopedia was meant to be computer based database, but it was later decided that it would be published into a book. Gathering over 1200 entries in 2 years, the team consists of Kiraz himself, along with Dr. Sebastian Brock, Dr. Coakley, Dr. Witakowski and Robert Kitchen, all scholars of Syriac Studies.

This encyclopedic dictionary which is yet to be edited and published, is aimed at scholars, members of the Syriac tradition and graduate students of Syriac studies. It will include pictures, maps, diagrams and tables. In an effort of what Kiraz referred to as ‘de-latinisation’ of popular terms, the encyclopedia will contain Syriac proper nouns in an effort to preserve history and language. Instead of using “Saint Matthew’s monastery” for example, the term “Deyr d’Mor Matay” will be used. Any differences between the East Syriac and West Syriac will also be accommodated for. Both forms will be used for neutral terms, eg. mimro/ mimra, and the West Syriac will be used for Western entries and East versions for eastern entries. When using names of cities and villages, the Syriac name will be used, as well as the modern day version. The main aim for creating this encyclopedia according to Kiraz is for Syriac knowledge to enter the encyclopedic community and an easy-to-use resource for students and scholars alike.

Other lectures mainly focused on Church history and literature, dating as far back as the 4th centuries. It was interesting to see and hear academics from Germany, Holland, Sweden, Poland, India, England and the USA (to name only a few) proficient in the study of the Syriac language, the language of our ancestors as well as the language spoken by many hundreds of thousands of Assyrians today.

Dr. Gabriele Yonan spoke about Theodor Noldeke’s Unpublished New Aramaic/ Syriac materials. She describes this German scholar’s work as a “landmark on new Syriac studies”. Noldeke in 1868, through using U.S. mission materials from the Urmia and Hakkiari regions in Beth-Nahrain, wrote one of the first versions of Syriac grammar, which Dr. Younan believes, heralded the “real beginning of Syriac studies as a modern language”. Dr. Edward Odisho, an Assyrian linguist and phonetician from Chicago in the United States spoke about the orthographic impact of gutturalisation on the transliteration of loanwords in Aramaic. He highlighted the problems of transliterating the Syriac language into English, where more often than not many of the sounds produced become lost. For example, the letter “qop”, “ ‘ein”, “teth”, “khet” have no equivalent English translation and this can prove to be problematic when considering the language is distorted when transliterated into other languages. Dr. Odisho suggests that we begin to use international phonetic standards in order to translate languages in order for their pronunciation not to be lost for future generations.

Dr. Robert Hoyland gave a lecture assessing early Syriac writings on the prophet Muhammad. Dr. Erica Hunter spoke about the conversions of Turkic tribes. Dr. Sebastian Brock, whilst unable to attend, had his paper read by Dr. Coakley discussing the important manuscripts of Mushe of Nisibis. Reverend Dr. Anthony Vallavanthara from India’s Church of the East spoke about the Saint Thomas Christians and east Syrian missionary activities in the early and middle ages. Rabbi Tarmida Hathem Saed, from the Mandaen tradition lectured on the Christian and Mandaen perspective on Baptism and Mr. Robert Gabriel from Lebanon spoke (albeit in French) about Syriac Relations with Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The treasure of information discussed at the Symposium was interesting enough, however the opportunity to meet and greet with the various scholars proved even more fruitful. It was encouraging to see Assyrians and non-Assyrians present at the Symposium. Every evening there was a function of some sort, whether a dinner, presentation or Church service. There was also an opportunity to see Dr. George Kiraz’s new video documentary on his and Dr. Sebastian Brock’s visit to the old Assyrian churches and monasteries in Turkey as well as the seat of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus, Syria.

Dr. Abdul Massih Saadi stated that it was a “great conference”. However he also stated that he would like to see “our own people (ie Assyrians) produce such scholars and present these materials for the purpose of revival”. Whilst the topic was the Syriac language and tradition of the church, only a handful of scholars were actually Assyrians-Suryoyo.

This Symposium, being held outside Europe for the first time in 32 years (and to be held next in Lebanon in 4 years’ time), was a fantastic opportunity to gather the world’s most eminent scholars on the history of the earliest Christian Church and its language – Aramaic. More than 150 people were present at the conference.

Many were colleagues and have worked on projects together before. Many were meeting each other for the first time and used their personal research to suggest new ways of approach as well as newly found historical evidence to help improve the quality of information. Truly it was a valuable source of information and highlighted the important role the Syriac language and early Christian churches played in the Middle East, India and China.

The Seminar presented on Sunday July 2nd, entitled “Assyrian After Assyria” proved a fantastic event. Over 250 people, mostly Assyrians, packed the lecture theatre, and after 8 hours of lectures and discussion not one person had left. The youth attendance was very high (as was female involvement), the significance of this resides in the fact that many of the younger Assyrian generations do not know about the history of Assyrian people after the fall of the empire, however our youth are developing an interest and a passion to learn more about our own history. It was also very encouraging to see over 60 scholars (non- Assyrians) amongst the participants. The Seminar was opened by the Bishop of the Church of the East, His Grace Mar Meelis Zaia, who stated that the reason for the conference was so that “history cannot repeat itself”. He stated that the aims of the Genocide Seminar were “not to pursue vengeance, but to awaken the present generation”. He highlighted the importance of spreading information, and educating the world about what happened to the Assyrian people not to promote violence or racial hatred, but to “discover ways and means for healing and prevention”. In his words the “truth will unite us and set us free”.

Professor Colin Tatz, the Director of the Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies at Macquarie University, welcomed the crowd. A member of the Jewish tradition himself, he has also been touched by the devastating effects of Genocide on a people, and for this reason has included the study of the Assyrian Genocide on the course syllabus. He stated that contrary to popular belief, “Genocide and its aftermath is alive and well” in the modern world, and this is precisely the reason he helps teaches the course not only at Macquarie University, but also at UTS (University of Technology Sydney) and at University of Western Sydney (UWS).

He reminded us that the state of Israel has made the decision to teach the Armenian Genocide in their high schools, much to the chagrin of the state of Turkey (with whom they have close diplomatic ties). The lack of Turkish presence at the conference (as opposed to last year’s conference) was met with mixed reactions from the audience. However Professor Tatz commented that those who deny historical fact do the rest of the world of a service, through reminding others that these events did take place.

In Australia, the Democrat party has put forward a Bill to Parliament to pass laws denouncing the act of Genocide. So far no law in Australia (and I’m sure this is the case in many other countries) states that the act of Genocide is illegal. Through the efforts of the Aboriginal national movement (the indigenous of this country who have also faced attempted extermination of their people), the word Genocide has become part of popular political vocabulary. The Australian native people (Aboriginal people) suffered physical extermination when faced with white invaders in the year 1788. They were killed by advanced ammunition of the Europeans, as well as by poisoning, rape and new diseases the Europeans brought with them. However, later than that (and up to the mid 1970’s), Aboriginals were denied the right to citizenship (no voting rights), denied the right to practice their spirituality and language, and had their children forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland and put into white Christian mission schools. These acts can also, and only be described as Genocide. These acts that the Assyrian people were also made to endure in their indigenous homeland.

Mr. Panayiotis Diamadis, also from the Macquarie University Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies, defined what constitutes Genocide and allowed the audience, not through emotion, but through analysing factual data, to determine whether what the Assyrians went through in the years 1890-1933 and even later did indeed constitute Genocide. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention of Genocide (created after the extermination of more than 6 million Jews after World War I) stated that: “Genocide is a crime whether committed during peace or wartime, with the intent to destroy, whether in part or whole, a national, ethnic or religious group”.

So how does Genocide occur? Firstly an ancient, usually ethnic or religious hatred must exist between peoples. Genocide occurs when the means and opportunity exist to execute the plan (in this case under cover of World War), as well as the superior technology to execute it. The actual killing, physical or cultural occurs soon after it has been made it into a state or party policy. Intent is obviously the hardest thing to prove.

He believes the Crimean war in 1853-1856 played a significant role in stirring Muslim versus Christina hatred, as it was fought with the pretext of the control of the Holy Land in Jerusalem. After the Young Turks coup in 1908, Christians were prevented from owning or purchasing land. In Diamadis’ words, there was a state policy of “Ottomanisation of all Turkish subjects”, even if the subjects were not of Turkish ancestry. He read a few examples of statements made by leaders at the time who spoke of “clearing the land from undesirable weeds”, ie the non-Turks or non-Muslims. This hate literature incited many to join the war effort against the Christian people that included not only Assyrians, but Armenians and Greeks as well.

In 1914, the population of Asia Minor was 12 million of which 5 million were Christians. By 1918, over 2 million Christians had been murdered or forcibly converted to Islam. This persecution was continued in 1933 by the Arab governments in Simele where 3,000 Assyrians died in the first month alone.

Diamadis is quick to point out that these events do not remain isolated in history. As recent as 1988 in Anfa in Turkey, 250 Assyrians and Yezidis (Assyrians who never converted to Christianity but remained pagans following the ancient religion) were called to the local police station, arrested and never seen again. Diamadis described the “terrorism” of the Turkish regime as it is witnessed in the destruction of Christian churches, the prohibition of teaching the Syriac language and the forced changing of Assyrian names into Turkish or Arab ones, practices which continue up until this present day.

Dr. Gabriele Yonan, a German scholar who was once married to an Assyrian man and speaks the eastern dialect of the Syriac language, has devoted over 30 years to the study of the history of Christianity and the present situation of the Assyrian people in their homeland. Her lecture revolved around German involvement in the Assyrian Holocaust, and the impact German state policies had on the crushing of the Christian presence due to the Turkish-German alliance in the years of World War I. She believes it is truly a shame that the west only recognises the Armenian Genocide during these years, forgetting the Greek and Assyrian victims.

The Genocide began in December of 1914, and the peak moments of the murderous acts occurred in January and April of 1915, the year Assyrians refer to as the “Year of the Sword” (Saypa/ Sayfo). Lord Curzon, the British Foreign Secretary at the time, put the Assyrian question to the Parliament and the press during the Paris Peace Conference. However, the case of the Assyrian Genocide was deemed unimportant and thrown into the rubbish heap of history. In 1989 the Turkish Government stated that it would open the Ottoman archives, however the world is still awaiting this reality. Dr. Yonan is positive that there will be masses of information detailing the massacre of almost two thirds of the Assyrian population.

Her talk however was highlighting the culpability of the German government in this period. The “shared guilt” is one that is never talked about, and the 2 million Christian deaths are blamed solely on the Turkish state. Whilst the German government never played a direct role, it did maintain an attitude of silence, publicly denying the holocaust ever took place. Gabriele Yonan’s paper revealed never before released evidence proving that the Germans of WWI not only incited their allies, the Turks into a Holy War against the Christians but also helped finance and organise the propaganda machine that sparked religious hatred in the Muslim population. As Dr.Yonan pointed out their plans for a Muslim empire led by the Turks, who would be used against the allies, backfired as the Turks concentrated a considerable part of their war effort to the annihilation of the indigenous and Christian populations of Asia Minor.

Dr. Racho Donef’s lecture on “Assyrians in the Turkish Republic” confirmed a lot of the evidence of persecution, oppression and attempted Genocide of not only the Assyrian people themselves, but also their culture.

Dr. Edward Odisho from Chicago in the U.S.A. spoke about linguistic and cultural Genocide. Due to 'Arabisation' and 'Turkification' policies, as well as the mass exodus of Assyrians to Europe and the West, the language is in great danger of becoming extinct. He spoke about broadening the definition of Genocide to include a socio-cultural definition, and the policies that denied Assyrians from practicing their language can also be claimed to be a form of cultural or linguistic Genocide. Language erosion, according to Dr. Odisho’s calculations, occurs in 3 generations where the language is not practiced or is not taught. Many Assyrians have experienced a functional loss of the language, and are unable to communicate about everyday matters. Usually we have just retained the ceremonial language, using it as a way to greet others or sing certain songs.

Assyrians, due to being a minority people, are usually rarely monolingual. Most of us can speak 3 or even 4 languages. Dr. Gabriele Younan firmly stated that the “Genocide is still continuing” and Dr. Odisho’s lecture came as a warning not to self-perpetuate the crimes committed against our people by refusing to practice our ancient language ourselves. He praised the efforts of building Assyrian public schools, and teaching all subject matter in Assyrian. A living example of this is the school built in the North of Iraq, where students are surely going to improve the language for at least the next three generations.

Dr. Fuat Deniz, an Assyrian sociologist from Sweden spoke about the maintenance and transformation of ethnic identity. Many writers believed that humanity would transcend ideas of identity with the coming of modernisation and globalisation. However we have actually seen the opposite occurring in the last 100 years. Many indigenous and minority groups around the world have begun the process of claiming recognition and self-autonomy. Woodrow Wilson’s 14 point plan on self-determination made headlines when delivered at the League of Nations following World War I, however these have hardly been implemented in anywhere around the world.

It has only been in the last century that the modern world has seen the creation of nation states. Even the concept of nationalist movements is a relatively new one, the Ottoman Empire for example, being a conglomerate of many different ethnicities and religions. Nationalist groups sought to homogenise their states, and in many cases this led to the non-recognition, assimilation or annihilation of ethnic or religious minorities. The destruction of an ethnic group can also be referred to as “ethnocide”.

Dr. Deniz believes that we cannot understand ethnicity without understanding the process of nation and state building. Many nations can exist within one state. A nation is one people with a common origin and ethnicity (language, culture and tradition) who are self-determined. An ethnic group does not always comprise a national one. This happens only when the ethnic group aspires to have a state of its own.

As a minority people, we cannot ignore the human cost of nation building. In the building of the new state of Turkey, diversity was seen as a threat to the integrity of the new state, and thus occurred the slaughter and assimilation of millions of Christians – Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians alike.

These persecutions and massacres have resulted in a “stigmatised identity”, the belief and the subconscious fear of further persecution and discrimination. This stigma has resulted in many ethnic groups accepting the fact that they are second hand citizens without the same rights as others. Through the persecution of the Assyrians in the Middle East, Dr. Deniz believes we have developed strategies not to argue or to express our identities due to a lack of self-confidence. However Assyrians not living in the homeland have experienced a change of status from an indigenous community to a migrant community. This has in many cases resulted in an increased consciousness about ethnic belonging and identity.

Because Dr. Deniz believes that the construction of identity is relational, whether to others, to history or to politics, I asked him whether he believed the fear and traumas experienced by Assyrians at the hands of their Muslim neighbours has resulted in a ‘revenge’ or ‘victim’ mentality. Dr. Deniz responded with the answer that we need to open ourselves to new ideas. We must transform and re-invent old schemes and concepts that are no longer relevant in the new countries. I brought this question up due to encountering young generations that have never lived in the Middle East speaking of Muslim hatred and Kurdish rivalry, without having ever experienced it themselves.

Ethnic identity is something that is both maintained and transformed. It can be defined primarily by what others believe you to be, but it is primarily constructed from the self. Life for Assyrians in the Middle East has seen them tenaciously cling onto their identity as oppression and prejudice has been a constant reminder of who they are. It is in the west where we must be careful of assimilation. We are given more freedoms and have equal rights in western countries, however, this may prove fatal to the maintaining of our ethnic identity.

Stavros Stavrides spoke about nation building and the politics of oil between the years 1914-1926. Our very own Nicholas Al-Jeloo spoke on “Who are the Assyrians” (his paper will be included in the next issue of Purely Academic).

Dr. Abdul Massih Saadi’s talk was entitled “From Survival to Revival: The Aftermath of Genocide”. He spoke of the several names that our people call themselves – Assyrians, Arameans, Chaldeans and Suryoyo. He stated that these groups all share the same language (albeit with differences in dialects), same socio-cultural cohesion, same history and same fate. Aramaic was the franca-lingua for a long time until the Ottoman scythe cut off the people from their ancestral homelands.

He believes that it was their faith in God that helped the Assyrian Christians survive the 2500 years of persecution, famine and war. When Sultan Abdul Hamid in 1894 started the Genocide against the Christian people, the Christians remained defence-less. Dr. Saadi stated that “those that fled (eg in Hakkiari) nor those that stayed escaped Ottoman tyranny”.

Dr. Saadi advocated the creation of a unified Assyrian front. He spoke of the technological revolution and especially the Internet as a source of information and identity retention. “We must play a part in the information boom” he stated “or we might face another Genocide – that of assimilation. No matter how dire our situation may seem, we must prove our competence in the survival of our nation”. Seminar was closed by Professor Rifaat Obied’s closing address, Dept. of Sematic Studies the university of Sydney. TAAAS hosted a closing dinner following the Assyrian Genocide Seminar on Sunday evening at the Ninveh Club which was sponsored by the Assyrian Australian Association and Nineveh Club to honor the Assyrian language academics and history scholars who were attending the Symposium Syriacum VIII and the Assyrian After Assyria Seminar.

On Sunday 9 July, TAAAS also held a seminar in Melbourne titled “Assyrians After Assyria II”. Presenters at this Seminar were Dr. Gabrielle Younan and Dr. Fuat Deniz. This was followed by a screening of TAAAS’s Genocide video the “untold Holocaust”. More than 90 Assyrians and non-Assyrians attended this seminar, amongst these were a number of academics from the Melbourne University. The Symposium Syriacum and the Seminar on the Assyrian Genocide both proved very fruitful for our community in Australia. The Centre for Comparative Genocide Studies at Macquarie University and also Sydney University were very impressed with the Assyrian contribution and participation. Also, with the quality of presenters and the administration of the Seminar, to the extent that TAAAS has been invited again to actively participate in next year’s Genocide conference.

The community support and response was immense and for that the organisers are truly grateful. Our thanks and appreciations to the following organisations for their generosity and sponsorship:

  • His Grace Bishop Mar Meelis Zaia and The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East;
  • Assyrian Universal Alliance – Australian Chapter;
  • Assyrian Australian Association;
  • Assyrian Australian Association Nineveh Club Limited;
  • Assyrian Charity and Educational Community;
  • Babylon Culture Association;
  • Assyrian Youth Group of Victoria;
  • Carl Suleman from Froggy Internet Services;
  • Suzy and Fred David from Dominic David & Stamford Solicitors;
  • Dr. John Atto from Ware Street Medical Centre;
  • Tony Jawaro From T&J Smash Repairs; and
  • Afram (??) from Mermaid Kitchens and Interiors.

Conferences such as this remain important in the Assyrian struggle for recognition. The importance of academia and the work that TAAAS does in the community is for more information and study to be carried out on our people. Through creating written discourses, Assyrian demands and pleas for equal human rights and self-determination in the homeland can at least be substantiated by evidence and academic proof of systematic persecution and massacres. I urge all of our readers to research, write and speak out on Assyrian language, culture, literature, history and the modern political situation. Our national struggle is primarily one of RECOGNITION and SELF-DETERMINATION.

Majidi Ann Warda
TAAAS - Chairperson of the Publication Committee

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