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The Armenian Genocide: 100 Years Later History Repeats Itself



Steven Wagner - published on 04/23/15 - updated on 06/08/17

The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Turkish genocide are themselves victims today

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April 24 marks the centennial of the Armenian genocide – or more precisely, the 100th anniversary of a particular point in the unfolding of the Armenian genocide. On that day in 1915, hundreds of Armenian intellectuals were rounded-up and deported from Istanbul, beginning a campaign of ethnic cleansing which would ultimately reduce the Armenian population in Turkey from over 2 million to under 400,000. Hundreds of thousands were killed outright by what we today have come to call death squads; a million more died of starvation and the rigors of a forced exodus to Syria and Russia.

While it is historically convenient to designate a particular day for the remembrance of these Christian martyrs, the Armenian genocide can be said to have actually begun with government-sanctioned massacres starting in 1894, and to have continued well after the end of World War I.

While the current Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is willing to “extend condolences to the descendants of Armenians killed 100 years ago,” he and his government are not willing to term the atrocities “genocide.” The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu explained to the Washington Post (April 20), that genocide is “not a generic word” but “a legal term,” and that it is “not up … to politicians to judge whether it was a genocide or not.” To acknowledge genocide means that some persons are guilty of international crimes, and it raises inconvenient issues of reparations and the return of confiscated property and territories. President Obama will not use the word genocide when he reflects this week on the atrocities visited upon the Armenia people, although Pope Francis has. Pope Francis was with Turkish president Erdogan and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in November of last year; I wonder if his perspectives on the matter were informed by that experience.

While justice demands the commemoration of the Armenian genocide and the honoring of those Christian martyrs, we should also commemorate the other genocide perpetrated against Christians by the Ottoman Empire. The genocide against the Assyrian people – remembered by descendants of the victims as “Sayfo” or “the year of the sword” – which coincided with the Armenian genocide. “Assyrian” is a term which encompasses a number of closely related ethnic communities, all Christian, including members of the Assyrian Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Assyrian Apostolic (Orthodox) Churches.

Greek Christians living in Turkey were also targeted during in the Armenian/Assyrian genocide; the massacre and deportation of Greeks began before World War I, but were prosecuted with particular fervor in early 1915:

 “It is believed that in Turkey between 1913 and 1922 … more than 3.5 million Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians were massacred in a state-organized and state-sponsored campaign of destruction and genocide, aiming at wiping out from the emerging Turkish Republic its native Christian populations (president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, 2007).

The current map of Near Eastern Christianity is drawn with the blood of these martyrs. The Christians of Iraq and Syria, in particular, are mostly the descendants of those who fled the Ottoman atrocities or were forcibly deported. And as though caught in some gruesomely repetitious video loop of history, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the victims of the Turkish genocides are now themselves targets of another genocide, another campaign of extermination at the hands of radical Islamic militias.

Most of the Christians who fled Mosul and the Nineveh plain in Iraq ahead of the advancing Islamic State are members of the Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox Churches. They have mostly fled into the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where the Chaldean Catholic Church predominates and is now providing assistance to the refugees. The Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church, Joseph Younan, has 15 parishes in exile in Kurdistan, 120 religious, and 50,000 laity.

In Syria, the violence of the civil war has put at risk the 240,000 members of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church (whose Patriarch Gregorius lives in Damascus), 65,000 members of the Syriac Catholic Church, 60,000 members of the Maronite Catholic Church, 30,000 members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, and 30,000 members of the Armenian Catholic Church. Numbers of Orthodox Christians at risk are not available, but two Orthodox bishops of Aleppo, Syria, Gregorios Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Paul Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church, were kidnapped on April 22, 2013, and are presumably being held by Islamic militants.

It is moving to recall that back in February 2013, Patriarch Gregorius wrote, “We appeal to the whole world to stop arms from being sent to Syria.” But we in the West knew better than this mere cleric with a fancy title, and so we declared the removal of Bashir Assad by force to be our policy goal. To date, we have achieved neither the removal of Bashir Assad, nor the emergence of a non-fundamentalist insurgency, nor the containment of the Islamic State, nor a safe-haven for the Christian community.

Turkey in particular is playing a very dangerous game, having largely instigated the war against Assad, then recoiling from the Islamic State, and now training 2,000 militiamen (with more to follow) to fight simultaneously the Islamic State and the Bashir Assad government. Let us pray that they never turn their weapons on the Christians remaining in Syria.

I recently traveled to northern Iraq to witness first-hand the condition of the Christian refugees there. They do not live in sprawling refugee camps, but in hundreds of small encampments; some are in unfinished buildings, some are in buildings intended for other purposes, some are in portable housing known as “caravans,” and still others are living in tents. This is not a way of life any of us would welcome, but I can report that the Christian refugees are being fed and clothed and that their children are attending school. The priests in exile are doing their best to continue providing the Sacraments, and to hold their communities together. When asked what more they need, the universal answer was, “just one thing … to go home.”

And that is the biggest question of the current situation: will the Christian refugees ever be able to return to their homes? Or will they of necessity become a part of the Diaspora, and move on to Europe and the United States? Will we in our lifetimes see a Near East without a Christian presence, in the place where Christianity was born?

Steven Wagner is the president of Solidarity with the Pilgrim Church, a non-profit organization based in Washington DC which raises funds to support the Church where it is confronting persecution.

Islamist MilitantsSyria
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