Christians Say Sayfo Martyrs Should Get Genocide Status…… | News & Reporting

In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, evangelicals gave their lives for their Lord. They lived in Nusaybin, once the home of the ancient Nisibis theological school, and were among the firstfruits of the Sayfo (“sword”) martyrs.

Overall, modern estimates place half a million Syrian-Aramaic Christian deaths at the hands of Turkish and Kurdish soldiers, coinciding with the Armenian genocide that claimed 1.5 million lives. Today, this Christian community, still speaking the language of Jesus, seeks its own recognition.

In June 1915, about 100 Syrian Orthodox families and an equal number of members of other Christian sects lived in the Muslim-majority town, which now lies on Turkey’s southeastern border with Syria. The Protestants were rounded up with Armenians and Chaldeans, marched in front of the city and shot.

Peace was promised to the Orthodox families by the local leader, but 30 men fled and sought refuge in the rugged mountains. A monk who trusted the authorities led soldiers to their hideout to calm the frightened gang.

They reportedly turned on the monk along the way and urged him to convert to Islam. When he refused, they cut off his hands, then his feet, and then his head. When they returned to Nusaybin, the soldiers rounded up the remaining Christians and led them out of the city. In joyful procession, the faithful sang encouraging hymns: Soon we will be with our Lord Jesus Christ.

They refused to convert, were shot one by one and then thrown into a well.

In 1919, the then Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Aphrem Barsaum submitted a report to the British Prime Minister after the Allied powers drove out the Ottomans. Similar massacres were repeated in 335 other villages under the archbishop’s jurisdiction, killing 90,313 Christians and destroying 162 churches. Gathering other reports, delegates to the Paris Peace Conference after World War II counted 250,000 dead.

“It is unfair if they only talk about the Armenian Genocide,” said Archbishop Joseph Bali, secretary to Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II. “We must also speak loudly to our people.”

Fueled by a sizeable diaspora, the Armenian tragedy was recognized as a genocide by 33 nations. The US resolution, passed by Congress in 2019, additionally listed Greek, Assyrian, Chaldean, Syrian, Aramaic, Maronite and other Christian sacrifices.

Greeks are also among those who seek individual recognition.

The situation with the others is particularly complicated. Divided into three sects – Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic and the Assyrian Church of the East – parts of the community prioritize different terminology.

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Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako has stated that the theological differences are not essential, but that each body represents a distinct tradition. Its Baghdad-based church is affiliated with the Vatican, while the Syrians, based in Damascus and the most populous in India, belong to the non-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox family. The independent Assyrians are heirs to the ancient Nestorian Church.

“I see nothing to prevent [our] union,” Sako said last month. “What unites us is much greater than what divides us.”

This would include genocide – but advocacy was slow to develop. Scattered across remote mountain villages, the Syriac-Aramaic peasants were less cosmopolitan than the integrated Armenians. The violence began in the 1840s, killing thousands. Another massacre followed in 1895, and the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 led to further expulsions.

When the Ottomans lost territories in the Balkans in 1913, Muslim refugees poured into the empire, who resettled them in Christian areas. And after the dissolution of the Empire after the Great War, the Lausanne Conference of 1923 established what are now the borders of Turkey and Greece, prompting further resettlement of Muslim and Christian populations.

But by then, native Christians who had been indigenous for centuries were facing death marches, and survivors fled to Syria. The Armenians were granted a national state in the Caucasus, but the Syrian-Aramaic people had no land of their own.

Both communities integrated into the religious diversity of the Levant. But Habib Ephrem, president of the Syrian League in Lebanon, said the traumatized families were reluctant to talk about Sayfo among themselves, let alone with the outside world.

“Our people made political efforts too late to realize what happened to them,” he said. “We had no PR or international relations.”

Ephrem’s grandfather came to Lebanon in 1917, but eventually many compatriots moved to Europe, especially Sweden. He has campaigned for the recognition of genocide for the past 15 years and was rewarded in 2007 when the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) decided that both Assyrians and Greeks deserve separate status.

She called on the Turkish government to formally apologize.

As with the Armenian Genocide, Ankara denies any formal policy of exterminating a people. In search of an audience, Ephrem traveled to Istanbul University in 2006 and quoted a Turkish poet: Separating a man from his country is like ripping his heart out of his chest.

“My grandfather didn’t come for tourism,” he said. “We were uprooted just for being there.”

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Despite failures in Turkey, genocide advocacy has gained momentum since the IAGS decision. Sweden (2010), Armenia (2013), Netherlands (2015), Germany (2016) and Syria (2020) have all officially recognized the Syrian-Aramaic plight.

Ephrem has served in the US as a regular attendee of the National Prayer Breakfast. But his main concern lies elsewhere – in the stability of the Christian communities in the Middle East. In 2015, IS overran 33 villages in Syria’s Khabour river valley, and fewer than 400 people live there today, he said. The economic crisis is fueling exodus from Lebanon, and he fears his people will eventually dissolve into the European mosaic.

It is right to acknowledge the genocide, but there is more at stake than memory.

“Is it better to forget and live as a citizen in Sweden, or cry and cry?” asked Ephrem. “If you have no future in your home country, then who are you?”

That question, said Theodora Issa, must be answered through faith and forgiveness.

“The responsibility lies with the church and the faithful,” said the Australian academic and daughter of an archpriest of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, originally from the Nineveh Plains region of Iraq. “Talking about Sayfo will help our people hold on to their identities.”

Issa carries a double burden – her mother’s family fled from the Turks; a century later, her father’s family fled ISIS. Her activism includes publishing books, attending conferences and representing her faith community on the World Council of Churches (WCC) central committee.

Last month the assembly voted not only to recognize the Syrian-Aramaic genocide as “distinguishable and separate” from the Armenian tragedy – recognized by the WCC nine years earlier – but also to work to ensure that all member churches are made aware of it.

“We recognize that these tragic events took place,” reads the official WCC resolution, “and that they must be called by their real names.”

If it had been called simply “Christian genocide” from the start, Issa says, things might have turned out differently. As it is, the standard denomination has overshadowed the suffering of Sayfo’s various Syriac-speaking communities.

That religious label, said Craig Simonian, fits the story.

“The Turkish-Ottoman leadership did not care whether a Christian was of Armenian, Greek or Assyrian descent,” said the regional director of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Peace and Reconciliation Network, an ethnic Armenian. “And given today’s denial of genocide by the Turkish government, it is vital that the atrocities committed against the Syrian-Aramaic people be recognized as a standalone recognition and not a footnote in the broader Armenian Genocide.”

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Without denying the massacres, other Armenians say Sayfo lacked the clear political agenda that marked the extermination of Armenians. As such, it falls short of the standard of official “genocide.”

Armenians commemorate April 24 as the beginning of the 1915 genocide. As a distinction, Bali indicated that the Holy Synod of his church fixed June 15 instead. It marks the approximate date that two bishops were killed in the monastery-laden region of Tur Abdin, which translates to “Mountain of the Servants of God.”

And since their capture in Syria in 2013, two Syrian-born Orthodox bishops remain missing to this day. Sayfo, his denial and continued atrocities against the community may lead to hostility from many.

“For me as a Christian, it is outrageous to hear members of my community, particularly the elderly, indiscriminately cursing Kurds and Turks as people who simply cannot be trusted,” wrote Amill Gorgis, editor of The Persecution and Extermination in Tur Abdin, 1915, which narrates the gospel story of Nusaybin above. “Why are we like this? Aren’t we used to learning and hearing the gospel texts that say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?”

The compendium, he wrote, is an attempt to understand the source of that pain.

Many sources stressed that Sayfo is not out for revenge. Tens of thousands of Syriac Aramaic people now live relatively peacefully in Turkey while the Assyrian Church of the East is moving its patriarchal headquarters back to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Sayfo can never bring our ancestors back, said Bali. And it’s not about reconciliation because the original killers can’t be identified. At stake is the truth and a gash.

Jesus healed the bleeding woman, he said. But before the miracle, he asked her story and let her share her pain. The same is necessary today for the Syrian-Aramaic peoples – in recognition of their genocide.

“We as Christians need to forgive for the sake of our healing,” Bali said. “It’s not true forgiveness if we just keep it to ourselves.”


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