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1915: Hakkiari: Further Statement by Mr. Paul Shimmon
by Published in the "Churchman" Newspaper
Posted: Tuesday, July 18, 2000 03:05 pm CST


The following is the story of how a Bishop, nay, an Archbishop, at the risk of his own life, saved 35,000 souls---one-third of his flock---from the pursuing Kurds and Turks, and from impending starvation on the heights of the Kurdistan Mountains. He was already in the zone of safety, where he could well have stayed; but he turned back, saying: "I am going back to die with my people." By so doing, he rescued a multitude of his people from almost certain massacre.

It will be remembered that the Assyrians (better known in Church history as the Nestorian or Syrian Christians) dwell on both sides of the Turco-Persian frontier. The bulk of them live in the very inaccessible mountains of Kurdistan, east of Mosul, which is in Mesopotamia, and south of Lake Van; while a goodly number live in the beautiful plains of Urmia and Salmas in northwestern Persia and in the adjacent country districts bordering on Turkey. Over the former district Mar Shimun, the Patriarch, is the supreme ecclesiastical and civil ruler.

Early last June the Turkish forces with irregular Kurds, under the leadership and direction of the Kaimakam, made an attack on the court of Mar Shimun in Quodshanis---a Turkish governor making an attack on peaceful subjects of the Turkish Empire for the simple reason that they were Christians. Quodshanis is an isolated place. The Patriarch and members of his court were in the interior with the main body of his church, so the people of the village could hardly be expected to make more than a bare resistance. For two days they fought from within the church, but soon their ammunition was exhausted, and the women and children were in a desperate position. At night they set out for the plains of Salmas in Persia, where I saw them in a most pitiable condition. The Patriarchal house, the English mission, and the larger part of the place was plundered and burned. Even the tombs of former Patriarchs were violated.

In the meanwhile a formidable army was being gathered against the independent dwellers in the valleys of Tkhuma, Tiari, Baz, &c. Both Turkish regulars and Kurds, it is said, to the extent of some 30,000, made a combined attack on the people who had kept their independence since Tamerlane and Ghengis Khan had driven them to the craggy mountains, where in some places they have to carry soil on their backs to make artificial fields. For the first time in the life of the people, artillery was brought up to bombard their ancient and venerable churches, while they themselves made a stout resistance with flintlocks and ammunition of their own make.

For forty days they carried on an unequal warfare against tremendous odds, until at last with their families they took refuge on the top of a high mountain in the Tal country. The Patriarchal family took shelter in the famous church of Mar Audishu, and the others who had been able to effect an escape surrounded them, making a big camp. The Turks and Kurds, after having destroyed the Christian villages in the valleys below, carrying away the crops and plundering everything, endeavoured to starve the fugitives out. Near the church mentioned above there is a small fountain gushing from a rock which was hardly enough to supply drinking water, and for washing and bathing they would often steal at nights to the valleys beneath. The people stayed here for nearly three months, never taking off their clothes and always on the lookout for an attack by night. The few sheep that they had taken with them on their flight were almost eaten up now---they had no salt at all, and soon hunger and sickness began to make their ravages. There was no necessity to deport this Christian population. Its mere starvation in the mountains was all that was needed to make an end of the oldest Apostolic Church in existence.

In the meantime Mar Shimun, the Patriarch, with a few brave men, had stolen out by night and made his way to the Russian army operating in Salmas, Persia. He was received with great distinction, but it was found out after many precious weeks of delay that it might not be possible to send any relief for the people in the interior who were not in the line of march. Later on, the Russians sent their army to Van, and then Mar Shimun with a few faithful followers and good rifles---he himself is an excellent shot---set out again for the interior to reach his flock and his brothers and sisters. They soon made ready to take the congregation through the valleys and defiles to the plains of Persia.

The last day of their stay was the saddest of all. On that day Ishaya, a brother of the Patriarch, died of fever. Mar Shimun, hearing of his illness, had come over the day before. The enemy was then very near, and they could hear the sound of the guns in Tkhuma. Just when the funeral of his brother was to take place, Surma and Romi, his sisters, and Esther, his sister-in-law, were compelled to leave the place, lest they should be caught by the enemy. Mar Shimun, two priests and a few laymen remained behind at this time of danger to bury Ishaya. The burial service was quickly said and the body hastily interred, and Mar Shimun hastened after the fleeing women and children. They were only just in time, for, a few hours after their departure, the Turks arrived and made straight for the church, having heard that the Patriarch's household was there.

I shall not dwell on the horrors of those caught and slain on the way nor on the many beautiful villages ruined and the women taken captive, nor on the thousands of others who have met the same fate. In one district of forty villages, its Bishop said to me, only seventeen had been able to make an escape, and he knew but very little of the fearful fate of the rest. I want only to speak of the living who are anxious to die, but to whom death does not come. They arrived in Persia at places already ruined; they camped out in the plain of Salmas (4,000 feet above sea level) sleeping in the fields with no clothes to cover them at night, clad in the rags which they have worn for many months, without food or shelter. Some assistance has gone to them from America and England. Some quilts were bought to be distributed, one for each family of five persons, to serve as cover in the bitter cold. Some families have as many as ten members, indeed one had twenty-eight. These are the people who have been living on one dollar a month, and to whom flour is served in quantity, barely sufficient to allow each person one small loaf a day and nothing more. I dare say that even their Bishops and other clergy are in not much better condition than their flock.

Assistance, however, can now be sent out to them and will reach them immediately. Urmia and Salmas are now in the zone of safety, where there are many Russian troops, and these have been very kind to the suffering Christians. Money is being sent through the American Consul, the missionaries and the Patriarch, and is at once distributed to the sufferers. The Rev. Y. M. Nisan, who is still alive, although he has lost his wife and daughter, is on the distributing committee. The defeat of the Turks at Erzeroum means peace and safety of life for all Armenia and Persia. In the latter country there are over 80,000 destitute, the majority of them Assyrians, and some Armenians as well. Money is distributed to all without discrimination.

I have purposely avoided saying anything of the horrors that we have suffered at Urmia and the agonies we have passed through, simply because I have felt that the condition of these mountaineers is even more pitiable. I hope Christian people will be moved at once to make an effort to save them from the clutches of starvation. The gallant Patriarch has saved them and brought them out of Turkey, where relief will get to them. I therefore appeal to all my friends and to others who may be so disposed to help rescue this ancient Church.

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