The Sayfo or Seyfo (lit. 'sword'; see below), also known as the Assyrian genocide, was the mass slaughter and deportation of Syriac Christians in southeastern Anatolia and the Urmia region of Persia, committed by Ottoman soldiers, irregulars, and some Kurdish tribes during World War I.
The Assyrians, who historically speak different varieties of Neo-Aramaic, are divided into mutually antagonistic churches, including the Syriac Orthodox Church, Church of the East, and Chaldean Catholic Church. Prior to World War I, they were settled in mountainous and remote areas of the Ottoman Empire, some of which were effectively stateless, and marked by intertribal warfare. Their traditional autonomy was threatened by the empire's centralization efforts in the nineteenth century, which led to increased violence and precariousness for Assyrians.
Mass killing of Assyrian civilians began during the Ottoman occupation of Persia from January to May 1915, during which massacres were committed by Ottoman irregulars and Kurdish tribes. In Bitlis Vilayet, Ottoman troops returning from Iran combined with local Kurdish tribes to massacre the local Christian population, including Assyrians. In mid-1915, Ottoman forces as well as Kurds jointly attacked the Assyrian tribes of Hakkari, driving them out by September. In Diyarbekir vilayet, governor Mehmed Reshid initiated a genocide encompassing all of the Christian confessional communities in the vilayet, including Syriac Christians. Ottoman Assyrians living farther south in present-day Iraq were not subjected to mass killing.
The Sayfo occurred concurrently with and closely related to the Armenian genocide, although the Sayfo is considered less systematic. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Assyro-Chaldean delegation stated that its losses were 250,000, about half its prewar population. The Sayfo is comparatively less well-studied than the Armenian genocide. Efforts to have the Sayfo formally recognized as a genocide began in the 1990s and have been spearheaded by the Assyrian diaspora. Several countries have recognized that Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire were victims of a genocide, which is rejected by Turkey.
Terms for Syriac Christians such as "Assyrian", "Syriac", "Aramean", and "Chaldean" have become politicized, and there is no universally accepted term. Since the Ottoman Empire was organized by religion, Ottoman officials referred to populations by their religious affiliation rather than ethnicity. The English word "Assyrian" was in use but did not designate all of the various sectarian groups targeted by the Sayfo. Therefore, according to historian David Gaunt, "speaking of an 'Assyrian Genocide' is anachronistic". In Neo-Aramaic, the genocide is usually called Sayfo or Seyfo (ܣܝܦܐ), a cognate of the Arabic saif meaning "sword", which since the tenth century has also meant "extermination" or "extinction". This word appears in such expressions as "Year of the Sword", referring to 1915, and "sword of Islam", as Syriacs believed that their extermination was motivated by religion.
The people now called Assyrian, Chaldean, or Aramean—in Neo-Aramaic, Suryoye or Suryaye—probably originate in heterogenous populations native to eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia that converted to Christianity in the first centuries CE, prior to the Roman Empire's adoption of Christianity. These populations historically spoke Aramaic languages and used Classical Syriac as a liturgical language. The first major schism within Syriac Christianity dates to 410, when Christians in the Sassanid Empire (Persia) formed the Church of the East to distinguish themselves from the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. The East Syriac Rite churches trace their descent from this church, as opposed to those that use the West Syriac Rite, which developed within the Byzantine Empire. The West Syriac church (later Syriac Orthodox Church) opposed the Chalcedonian Definition adopted by the Byzantine church in 451, instead insisting on miaphysitism; consequently it faced persecution from Byzantine rulers. The schisms in Syriac Christianity were fueled by political divisions between different empires and personal antagonisms between clergymen.
Middle Eastern Christian communities were devastated by the Crusades and the Mongol invasions. Decline fueled additional schisms; in the sixteenth and seventeenth century the Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Catholic Church split from the Church of the East and Syriac Orthodox Church respectively, entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. Each church considered the others heretical. Due to these deep divisions, Assyrians were unable to coordinate a unified resistance effort when they were targeted for extermination.
Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire
Because of the millet system, the Ottoman Empire did not recognize ethnic groups, instead different religious denominations, organized as millets: Süryaniler/Yakubiler (Syriac Orthodox), Nasturiler (Church of the East), and Keldaniler (Chaldean Catholic Church). Until the nineteenth century, these groups belonged to the Armenian millet. Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire lived in remote, mountainous areas, where they had settled in order to avoid state control. While this remoteness carried advantages and enabled Assyrians to avoid military conscription and taxation, it also carried disadvantages by cementing their internal differences and preventing the emergence of a collective identity similar to the Armenian national movement. Unlike the Armenians, Syriac Christians did not control a disproportionate part of Ottoman commerce and they did not have significant populations living in nearby hostile countries.
Gaunt has estimated the Assyrian population at between 500,000 and 600,000 just before the outbreak of World War I, significantly higher than reported on Ottoman census figures. Midyat was the only town in the Ottoman Empire with an Assyrian majority, although divided between Syriac Orthodox, Chaldeans, and Protestants. Syriac Orthodox Christians were concentrated in the hilly rural areas around Midyat, known as Tur Abdin, where they populated almost 100 villages and worked in agriculture or crafts. Syriac Orthodox culture was centered in two monasteries near Mardin, Mor Gabriel and Deyrulzafaran. Outside of the area of core Syriac settlement, there were also sizable populations in the towns of Urfa, Harput, and Adiyaman as well as villages, many of which (unlike the Syriac population of Tur Abdin) spoke other languages.
Under the leadership of the Patriarch of the Church of the East, Assyrian tribes ruled the Hakkari mountains with aşiret status—in theory granting them full autonomy—with subordinated farmers. Hakkari is very mountainous with peaks reaching up to 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) separated by steep gorges, such that many areas could only be accessed by footpaths carved into the side of mountains. The Assyrian tribes sometimes fought each other on behalf of their Kurdish allies. Church of the East settlement began to the east on the western shore of Lake Urmia in Iran, in the town of Urmia and surrounding villages; just north, in Salamas, was a Chaldean enclave. There was a Chaldean area around Siirt in Bitlis Vilayet, which was mountainous but less so than Hakkari, but the bulk of Chaldeans lived farther south, in modern-day Iraq and outside of the zone that suffered genocide during World War I.
While Kurds and Assyrians were well-integrated, this integration "led straight into a world marked by violence, raiding, the kidnapping and rape of women, hostage taking, cattle stealing, robbery, plundering, the torching of villages and a state of chronic unrest". Assyrian efforts to maintain their independence collided with the Ottoman Empire's attempts at centralization and modernization in the nineteenth century, to assert control over what had effectively been a stateless region. Historians date mass violence against the Assyrians to the 1830s or earlier. In the 1840s, Kurdish emir Badr Khan repeatedly invaded the Hakkari mountains to attack Assyrian tribes there, killing several thousands. The irregular Hamidiye cavalry, formed from Kurdish tribes loyal to the government, (although they feuded with each other) were exempt from both civil and military law, enabling them to commit violence with impunity. During intertribal feuds, the brunt of violence was directed at Christian villages under the "protection" of the opposing tribe.
During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, the Ottoman state armed Kurds with modern weapons to fight Russia. When Kurds refused to give the weapons back at the end of the war, Assyrians—relying on older weapons—were left at a disadvantage and subjected to increasing violence. The rise of political Islam in the form of Kurdish shaikhs also widened the gulf between Assyrians and Muslim Kurds. Many Assyrians were killed in the 1895 massacres of Diyarbekir during the Hamidian massacres. Violence worsened after the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, despite Assyrian hopes that the new government would stop promoting anti-Christian Islamist sentiments. Due to increasing Kurdish attacks, which the Ottoman authorities did nothing to prevent, the Patriarch of the Church of the East, Mar Shimun XIX Benyamin, entered into negotiations with the Russian Empire prior to World War I.
World War I
Prior to World War I, Russia and the Ottoman Empire both courted populations living in the other's territory to rely on to wage guerrilla warfare behind enemy lines. While the Ottoman Empire tried to enlist Caucasian Muslims as well as Armenians, Iranian Assyrians and Azeris, Russia looked to Armenians, Kurds, and Assyrians living in the Ottoman Empire. In particular, the Ottoman Empire wanted to annex Iranian Azerbaijan, the northwestern part of Qajar Iran, in order to connect with the Russian Azeris and even realize Pan-Turanism.
In 1912 and 1913, the loss of the Balkan Wars triggered an exodus of Muslim refugees from the Balkans. The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) government decided to resettle these refugees in eastern Anatolia using land confiscated from populations deemed unreliable. There was a direct connection between the deportation of the Christian population and the resettlement of Muslims in the depopulated areas. The goal of this population replacement was both to Turkify the newcomers as well as put an end to perceived internal threats of Christian populations.
Years before the war, CUP politician Enver Pasha set up the paramilitary Special Organization, personally loyal to himself. Its members, many of whom were convicted criminals released from prison for the task, operated as spies and saboteurs. On 24 July 1914, the Ottoman Empire ordered a full mobilization for war; shortly thereafter, it concluded the German–Ottoman alliance. In August 1914, the CUP sent a delegation to a Dashnak conference, offering an autonomous Armenian region if the Dashnaks incited a pro-Ottoman revolt in Russia in the event of war. The Armenians refused. Gaunt states that it is likely a similar offer was made to Mar Shimun during a meeting with Tahsin Bey in Van on 3 August. After returning, he sent letters urging his followers to "fulfill strictly all their duties to the Turks" and see if they were prepared to keep their promises. In late 1914, Assyrians of Hakkari and Iran refused conscription into the Ottoman army, but those in Mardin accepted conscription.
Ottoman occupation of Urmia (January to May 1915)
In 1903, Russia estimated that there were 31,700 Assyrians living in Persia. Facing attacks from Kurdish neighbors, the Assyrian villages in the Ottoman–Iranian borderlands organized self defense with the result that by World War I they were well armed. In 1914, prior to the official declaration of war against Russia, Ottoman forces crossed the border into Persia and destroyed Christian villages. In late September and October 1914 the attacks were on a large scale and once the attackers came close to Urmia; many Assyrian villages were attacked. Due to Ottoman attacks thousands of Christians living along the border fled to Urmia. Others arrived in Iran after fleeing from the Ottoman side of the border. The November 1914 Ottoman jihad proclamation enflamed jihadist sentiments in the Ottoman–Iranian border area and convinced the local Kurdish population to side with the Ottomans. In November, Persia declared its neutrality but that was not respected by the warring parties.
Russia organized units of Assyrian and Armenian volunteers to bolster Russian forces in the area against Ottoman attack. Assyrians led by Agha Petros declared their support for the Entente and paraded in Urmia. Agha Petros later stated that he received promises from Russian officials that in exchange for their support, they would receive an independent state after the war. Ottoman irregulars in Van vilayet crossed the Persian border and attacked Christian villages in Persia. In response, Persia shut down the Ottoman consulates in Khoi, Tabriz, and Urmia and expelled some Sunni Muslims. The Ottoman authorities retaliated with the expulsion of several thousand Hakkari Assyrians to Persia. Resettled in farming villages, these Assyrians were armed by Russia. The Russian government was aware that the Assyrians and Armenians of Urmia could not stop an Ottoman army and was indifferent to the danger to which these communities would be exposed in the event of an Ottoman invasion.
On 1 January 1915, Russia, which had been occupying Iranian Azerbaijan, abruptly withdrew its forces. Ottoman forces led by Djevdet Bey, Kazim Karabekir, and Ömer Naji occupied it with no opposition. Immediately after the withdrawal of Russian forces, local Muslims committed pogroms against Christians; the Ottoman army also attacked Christian civilians. Altogether more than a dozen villages were sacked and, of large villages, only Gulpashan was left intact. News of these atrocities spread quickly leading many Armenians and Assyrians to flee to the Russian Caucasus; those from north of Urmia had more time to flee. According to different estimates around 10,000, or 15,000 to 20,000 managed to cross the border into Russia. Those Assyrians who had volunteered for service in the Russian forces were separated from their families, often left behind. An estimated 15,000 Ottoman troops reached Urmia by 4 or 5 January and Salmas on 8 January.
The Ottoman troops attacked Christian villages during their retreat, beginning in February 1915, when they were turned back by a Russian counterattack. Facing losses which they blamed on Armenian volunteers and imagining the existence of a widespread Armenian rebellion, Djevdet ordered massacres of Christian civilians in order to reduce the potential future strength of the volunteer units. Some Iranian Kurdish tribes participated in the killings although other local Kurds protected Christian civilians. In addition, some Assyrian villages engaged in armed resistance when attacked. The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a formal protest of the atrocities to the Ottoman government, but lacked the power to prevent them.
There were no missionaries in Salmas valley to protect Christians; although some local Muslims attempted to do so. In Dilman, the Iranian governor offered shelter to 400 Christians but was forced to surrender the men to the Ottoman forces, who executed them in the town square. In February 1915, the entire Christian male population, between 700 and 800 people, was murdered in Haftevan over two days. The Ottoman forces, realizing that they could not prevent the Russian advance, lured Christians to the village by demanding that they register there, and also arrested notables in Dilman, who were brought to Haftevan for execution. The killings were committed jointly by the Ottoman army, led by Djevdet, and the local Shekak Kurdish tribe led by Simko Shikak. Gaunt argues that the massacre in Haftevan was the first premeditated mass execution of civilians by the Ottoman forces in the Caucasus campaign. Historian Florence Hellot-Bellier considers this massacre as well as the one in nearby Khosrowa to be "clearly related to the extermination orders from Constantinople".
Most Christians in Urmia did not have time to flee during the Russian withdrawal. Around 20,000 to 25,000 refugees were left stranded in Urmia. Nearly 18,000 Christians sought shelter in the Presbyterian and Lazarist missions of Urmia. Although there was reluctance to attack the missionary compounds, many died of disease. Between February and May, when Ottoman forces pulled out, there was a campaign of mass execution, looting, kidnapping, and extortion against Christians in Urmia. More than a hundred men were arrested at the Lazarist compound and dozens, including Mar Dinkha, the Bishop of Tergawer, executed on 23 and 24 February. Near Urmia, the large Syriac village of Gulpashan was attacked with men killed and women and children abducted and raped.
In April, Halil Kut arrived with reinforcements following a forced march from Rowanduz. Both he and Djevdet ordered the murder of Armenian and Syriac soldiers serving in the Ottoman army; several hundred were killed as a result. There were several other massacres killing hundreds of Christians, and women were targeted for kidnapping and rape. One German observer estimated that 21,000 Christians were killed in Iranian Azerbaijan between December and February; 70 villages were destroyed. In May and June, those Christians who had fled to the Caucasus returned to find their villages destroyed. Armenian and Assyrian volunteers made revenge attacks on Muslims. After retreating from Iran, the Ottoman forces—blaming Armenians and Assyrians for their defeat—took revenge against Ottoman Christians. Ottoman atrocities in Iran were widely covered in international media in mid-March 1915, and prompted a declaration on 24 May by Russia, France, and the United Kingdom condemning them. The Blue Book, a collection of eyewitness reports published by the British government in 1916, contained 104 pages of its 684 pages about the fate of Assyrians.
Ethnic cleansing of Hakkari
Massacres of Assyrians in the lowlands
In August 1914, Assyrians in nine villages were forced to flee to Iran and their villages were burned after refusing conscription into the Ottoman army. On 26 October 1914, a few days before the Ottoman Empire officially entered World War I, Talaat sent a telegram to Djevdet, ordering the deportation of the Assyrians who lived near the Iranian border. In the context of a planned Ottoman attack in Iran, the loyalty of the Hakkari Assyrians was doubted. The order envisioned the resettlement of Assyrians among Muslims in Anatolia with no more than twenty living in each place, such that their culture, language, and traditional way of life would be destroyed. Gaunt counts this order as the start of the Assyrian genocide. The government in Van reported that the order could not be implemented due to the lack of forces to carry it out, and by 5 November, the expected Assyrian unrest did not materialize. Instead, Assyrians in Julamerk and Gawar were arrested or killed, while Ottoman irregulars attacked Assyrian villages throughout Hakkari in retaliation for their refusal to follow the order. Until December 1914, Assyrians were unaware of the government's role in these events, and formally protested to the governor of Van.
In Bashkale, the Ottoman garrison was commanded by Kazim Karabekir and the local Special Organization branch commanded by Ömer Naji. In November 1914, Russian forces captured the town as well as Sarai and held both for a few days. After recapture by the Ottomans, local Christians were punished as collaborators out of proportion to any collaboration that took place. Y. K. Rushdouni reported that 12 Armenian and Assyrian villages "were ruthlessly wiped out". Local Ottoman forces consisting of gendarmerie, Hamidiye irregulars, and Kurdish volunteers were unable to mount attacks on the Assyrian tribes on the highlands, confining their attacks to poorly armed Christian villages in the plains. Refugees from the area told the Russian army that "nearly the entire male Christian population of Gawar and Bashkale" had been massacred. In May 1915, Ottoman forces retreating from Bashkale committed another massacre of hundreds of Armenian women and children before continuing on to Siirt.
Preparations for war
In the patriarch's home in Qudshanis, Mar Shimun reported that "When we saw many Christians of Gawar and Albak killed without reason, we thought our turn would come". Via Agha Petros, an Assyrian interpreter for the Russian consulate in Urmia, he made contact with the Russian authorities. In December 1914, Mar Shimun was also called to a meeting with Shefik Bey, an Ottoman official sent from Mardin to win over the Assyrians for the Ottoman cause, in Bashkale. Shefik promised protection and money in exchange for a written promise that the Assyrians would not side with Russia or permit Nestorian tribes from taking up arms against the Ottoman government. The tribal chiefs considered this offer but rejected it. In January 1915, Kurds blocked the path from Qudshanis to the Assyrian tribes. The next month, the patriarch's sister Lady Surma left Qudshanis with 300 men. By early that year, the tribes of Hakkari were preparing to defend themselves from a large-scale attack. After a council, they decided to send women and children to the area around Chamba in Upper Tyari, leaving only combatants behind. On 10 May, the Assyrian tribes met and made some sort of declaration of war against the Ottoman Empire, or alternately a general mobilization. In June, Mar Shimun traveled to Persia to ask for the support of the Russians. In Moyanjik (Salmas valley), he met with General Fyodor Chernozubov who promised support. The patriarch and Agha Petros also met Russian consul Basil Nikitin in Salmas just before 21 June. However, the promised Russian help never materialized.
In May, Assyrian warriors were part of the Russian force rushed to relieve the defense of Van. As a result, Haydar Bey, the vali of Mosul, was given special powers to invade Hakkari. Talat ordered him to drive the Assyrians out and added, "We should not let them return to their homelands". The ethnic cleansing operation was jointly coordinated by Enver and Talat and both military and civilian Ottoman authorities. To legalize the invasion, the districts of Julamerk, Gawar, and Shemdinan were temporarily transferred to Mosul vilayet. The Ottoman army joined forces with local Kurdish tribes, given specific targets: Suto Agha of the Kurdish Oramar tribe attacked Jilu, Dez, and Baz from the east; Said Agha attacked a valley in Lower Tyari; Ismael Agha targeted Chamba in Upper Tyari; and the Upper Berwar emir, from the west, attacked Ashita, the Lizan valley, and Lower Tyari.
Invasion of the highlands
The joint encirclement operation was launched on 11 June. The Jilu tribe was attacked at the beginning of the campaign by several Kurdish tribes; the fourth-century church of Mar Zaya was destroyed with historic artifacts. Ottoman forces based in Julamerk and Mosul launched a joint attack on Tyari on 23 June. Haydar first attacked the Tyari villages of Ashita and Sarespido and later on an expeditionary force of three thousand Turks and Kurds attacked the mountain pass between Tyari and Tkhuma. In most of the battles, Assyrians were victorious but suffered unsustainable losses of lives and ammunition; they lacked the modern German-manufactured rifles, machine guns, and artillery used by the invaders. In July, Mar Shimun sent Malik Khoshaba and bishop Mar Yalda Yahwallah from Barwar to Tabriz to request urgent assistance from the Russians. The Kurdish Barzani tribe assisted the Ottoman army and laid waste to Tkhuma, Tyari, Jilu, and Baz. During the campaign, Ottoman forces took no prisoners. Mar Shimun's brother Hormuz was arrested where he was studying in Constantinople and in late June, Talat attempted to obtain the surrender of the Assyrian tribes by threatening his life if Mar Shimun did not capitulate. The Assyrians refused, so he was killed.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the Assyrians retreated further into the high mountains where there was no food and watched as their homes, farms, and herds were pillaged. They were left with no other options than fleeing to Persia, which most had done by September. Most of the men joined the Russian army, hoping therefore to return home. How many died fighting in Hakkari is not known; Nikitin estimated that 45,000 Assyrians reached Persia, out of a little over 70,000 from the Assyrian tribes of Hakkari before the war. Many died the first winter due to lack of food, shelter, and medical care. During the fighting in 1915, the Assyrians' only strategic objective was defensive, while the Ottoman goal was not merely to militarily defeat the Assyrian tribes but completely expel them and prevent their return.
Butcher battalion in Bitlis (June 1915)
In Bitlis, a Kurdish rebellion was put down shortly before the official outbreak of war in November 1914. The CUP government reversed its position on the Hamidiye regiments, raising them to put down the rebellion. As occurred elsewhere, military requisitions turned into general pillage. In February, those recruited into labor battalions began to disappear. In July and August 1915, 2,000 Chaldeans from Bitlis vilayet, as well as some Syriac Orthodox, were among those who fled into the Caucasus when the Russian army retreated from Van.
Prior to the war, Siirt and the surrounding area were a Christian enclave populated largely by Chaldean Catholics. The Chaldean diocese of Siirt was totally destroyed during the Sayfo, along with its library containing rare manuscripts. Jacques Rhétoré estimated that there were 60,000 Christians living in the Siirt sanjak including 15,000 Chaldeans and 20,000 Syriac Orthodox. Violence in Siirt began on 9 June with the arrest and execution of Armenian, Syriac Orthodox, and Chaldean clerics and notables, including Chaldean bishop Addai Sher. After retreating from Persia, Djevdet led the siege of Van and in June continued to Bitlis with 8,000 soldiers who he termed the "butcher battalion" (Turkish: kassablar taburu). Arrival of these troops led to the escalation of violence. Both the mutesarif and the mayor of Siirt—Serfiçeli Hilmi Bey and Abdul Ressak—were replaced due to their lack of support for the killing. Forty local officials in Siirt were very active in organizing the massacres.
During a systematic massacre that lasted a month, people were killed in the streets or their houses, which were plundered. The massacre was organized by the vali of Bitlis, the chief of police, the mayor, and other local notables. The killing in the town of Siirt was done by çetes, while the surrounding villages were destroyed by Kurds; many of the local Kurdish tribes were involved. According to eyewitness Rafael de Nogales, the massacre was planned as revenge for Ottoman defeats at the hands of Russia. De Nogales believed that Halil was trying to assassinate him, as the CUP had disposed of other witnesses. He left Siirt as quickly as he could, passing deportation columns of Syriac and Armenian women and children.
Only 400 people were officially deported from Siirt, the remainder having been either killed or kidnapped by Muslims. These deportees (women and children, as all the men had been executed) were forced to march away from Siirt towards Mardin or Mosul, assaulted by gendarmes. As they passed through different areas, all possessions including clothing were gradually stolen by the local Kurdish and Turkish populations. Women considered attractive were taken away by gendarmes or Kurds, raped, and killed; those unable to keep up were also killed. One of the places where they were attacked and robbed by Kurds was the gorge of Wadi Wawela in Sawro kaza, northeast of Mardin. None of the deportees towards Mardin reached their destination; only 50 or 100 survivors arrived in Mosul out of an original 7,000 to 8,000 Chaldeans. Only three Assyrian villages in Siirt—Dentas, Piroze and Hertevin—survived the Sayfo, existing until 1968 when their residents emigrated.
After leaving Siirt, Djevdet proceeded to Bitlis, arriving on 25 June; his forces killed men with their women and girls taken as slaves by Turks and Kurds. The Syriac Orthodox Church estimated its losses at 8,500 people in Bitlis vilayet, mainly in Schirwan and Gharzan.
The situation in Diyarbekir worsened over the winter of 1914–1915 as the Saint Ephraim church was vandalized and four young men from the Syriac village of Qarabash were hanged on charges of desertion. Syriacs who gathered to protest the execution were clubbed by gendarmes and two died as a result. In March, many non-Muslim soldiers were disarmed and transferred to labor battalions where they were put to work building roads. Harsh conditions, mistreatment, and individual murders led to many deaths.
On 25 March, Mehmed Reshid, one of the founding members of the CUP, became the governor of Diyarbekir. Chosen for his previous record in perpetrating anti-Armenian violence, Reshid brought along thirty mostly Circassian Special Organization members who were joined by convicts released from the prison. Many local officials (kaymakams and mutesarifs) refused to follow Reshid's orders and were replaced in May and June 1915. Kurdish confederations were offered material rewards in exchange for allowing their Assyrian clients to be killed. Those allied with the government complied (including the Milli and Dekşuri), and many who had supported the anti-CUP 1914 Bedirhan revolt switched sides because the extermination of Christians did not threaten their interests. While the Raman tribe became enthusiastic executioners for Reshid, parts of the Heverkan leadership protected Christians, limiting the reach of Reshid's genocide and allowing pockets of resistance to survive in Tur Abdin. Some Yazidis, who themselves were persecuted by the government, also helped Christians. The killers in Diyarbekir were typically volunteers from urban or rural areas, generally organized by local notables, as neither regular army nor Special Organization units were diverted from the front in order to kill Christians in Diyarbekir. These freelance perpetrators took a share of the loot. Some women and children were abducted into local Kurdish or Arab families.
Thousands of Armenians in Diyarbekir city were arrested, deported, and massacred in June, along with a few hundred Syriacs including all their clergymen. In Viranşehir kaza, the Armenians were massacred in late May and June 1915. While Syriacs were not killed, many lost their property and some were deported to Mardin in August.
Targeting of non-Armenian Christians
Under Reshid's leadership, a systematic anti-Christian extermination took place in Diyarbekir vilayet. Reshid knew his decision to extend the persecution to all Christians in Diyarbekir was against the wishes of the central government and concealed relevant information in his communications. Unlike the central government, Reshid and his deputy in Mardin, Bedri Bey, classified all Aramaic-speaking Christians as Armenians, permanent enemies of the CUP who must be eliminated. Reshid planned to replace the Christians of Diyarbekir with selected, approved Muslim settlers in order to counterbalance potentially rebellious Kurds, but in practice the areas were resettled by Kurds and the genocide ultimately consolidated the Kurdish presence in Diyarbekir. Historian Uğur Ümit Üngör states that, in Diyarbekir, "most instances of massacre in which the militia engaged were directly ordered by" Reshid and that "all Christian communities of Diyarbekir were equally hit by the genocide, although the Armenians were often particularly singled out for immediate destruction". According to Rhétoré's estimates, Syriac Orthodox in Diyarbekir vilayet lost 72 percent of their population, compared to 92 percent of Armenian Catholics and 97 percent of Armenian Apostolic Church adherents.
German diplomats noticed that the Ottoman deportations were targeting other groups besides Armenians, leading to an official complaint from the German government. Austria–Hungary and the Holy See also protested the violence. In response to these protests, on 12 July 1915, Talat telegraphed Reshid, ordering that "measures adopted against the Armenians are absolutely not to be extended to other Christians ... you are ordered to out an immediate end to these acts". No action was taken against Reshid for exterminating non-Armenian Christians, or even assassinating Ottoman officials who disagreed with the massacres, and in 1916 he was rewarded by appointment as governor of Ankara. As a consequence, it is debatable whether Talat's telegram was sent to appease German an Austrian opposition to the massacres and not intended to be implemented. In some documented instances, the killers separated Armenians and Syriacs, only killing the former. In early July, Syriacs began to be separated from Armenians in Mardin and not killed. The killing of Assyrians resumed in August and September.
The Christians of Mardin were largely untouched until May 1915; at the end of the month they heard about the murder of wealthy Christians elsewhere in Diyarbekir in order to steal their properties and the abduction of Christian women. Extortion and violence also began in Mardin district despite the best efforts of mutasserif Hilmi Bey. Hilmi rejected Reshid's demands to arrest Christian notables in Mardin, stating that they posed no threat to the state. Reshid instead sent Pirinççizâde Aziz Feyzi to stir up anti-Christian violence in April and May; Feyzi managed to bribe or persuade the Deşi, Mışkiye, Kiki and Helecan chieftains to join him in this endeavor. The police chief in Mardin, Memduh Bey, arrested dozens of men in early June, using torture to extract confessions of treason and disloyalty, while extorting their families for money. Reshid appointed a new mayor and officials in Mardin, who organized a 500-man militia in order to carry out killings. Reshid also urged the central government to depose Hilmi, which it did on 8 June. He was replaced by the equally resistant Mehmed Shefik Bey, whom Reshid also tried to depose. However, the more cooperative Ibrahim Bedri was appointed as an official and Reshid relied on him to carry out his orders, bypassing Shefik. Reshid also replaced the governor of Midyat, Nuri Bey, with the hardliner Edib Bey in July 1915 after Nuri refused to cooperate with Reshid's plans.
On the night of 26 May, the militiamen attempted to plant arms in a Syriac Catholic church in Mardin in order to justify the massacres that they were planning, but were caught in the act. The Christian notables of Mardin were deported from the city in multiple convoys, the first of which left Mardin on 10 June. Anyone who refused to convert to Islam was murdered on the road to Diyarbekir. The second convoy, departing 12 June, was halfway massacred when messengers from Diyarbekir arrived and announced that the non-Armenians had been pardoned by the sultan. After the notables were killed, other men and women and children from Mardin were targeted for extermination in several convoys from late June until October. The Syriac Orthodox of Mardin made a deal with the authorities and were spared, but all other Christian confessional groups were decimated.
In the countryside of Mardin sanjak, all Christian denominations were treated the same. On 1 July, militia and Kurds attacked the village of Tell Ermen, killing men, women, and children indiscriminately in the church after raping the women. The next day, more than 1,000 Syriac Orthodox and Catholics were massacred at Eqsor, by militia and Kurds from the Milli, Deşi, Mişkiye, and Helecan tribes. Looting continued for a few days and afterward, the village was burned down, which could be seen from Mardin. In Nusaybin, Talaat's order to spare Syriacs was ignored as Christians from all denominations, including many adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church, were arrested in mid-August and later butchered in a ravine. In Djezire (Cizre) kaza, Syriac Orthodox leader Gabro Khaddo cooperated with the authorities, defused plans for armed resistance, and paid a large ransom in June 1915. Almost all Syriacs were killed alongside the kaza's Armenians at the end of August. Some Armenian and Syriac Orthodox men were drafted to work in road construction or harvesting crops, to compensate for the others who had been killed already. In August 1915, the harvest was over and the Armenians were killed, while Syriacs were released.
In Tur Abdin, some Syriac Christians fought against their attempted extermination with varying success. In Midyat, local Christians, after hearing about massacres elsewhere, contemplated resistance. The local Syriac Orthodox community initially refused to support this, making it impracticable. On 21 June, 100 men (mostly Armenians and Protestants) were arrested, tortured for confessions implicating others, and executed outside the city, causing panic among the Syriac Orthodox. Local people refused to hand over their arms, attacked the government offices, and severed telegraph lines. At the same time, local Arab and Kurdish tribes were recruited to attack the Christians. The town was pacified in early August after weeks of bloody urban warfare in which hundreds of Christians were killed. Survivors fled to the more defensible Iwardo, which held out successfully, with the help of local Yazidis who supplied food.
In June 1915, many Syriacs from Midyat kaza were massacred and others fled to the hills. In May 1915, local tribes and the Raman began attacking Christian villages in the vicinity of Azakh (now İdil), located on the road from Midyat to Djezire. The survivors fled to Azakh as it was a defensible location. The villages were attacked from north to south, giving the attackers at Azakh (one of the southernmost villages) more time to prepare. The primarily Syriac Orthodox village refused to hand over Catholics and Protestants as demanded by the authorities. Azakh was first attacked on 17 or 18 August, but the defenders repelled this as well as subsequent attacks over the next three weeks. These events were considered treasonous rebellions by Ottoman officials, who reported massacre victims as rebels killed in fighting.
Against the advice of general Mahmud Kâmil Pasha, Enver ordered the rebellion to be immediately crushed in November. Parts of the Third, Fourth, and Sixth Armies were sent in to crush the rebels as was the Turkish–German expeditionary force under the command of Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter and Ömer Naji, diverted from its original objective of attacking Tabriz. To justify the attack on Azakh, Ottoman officials claimed without any evidence that the "Armenian rebels" had "cruelly massacred the Muslim population of the region". Scheubner was skeptical of the attack and disallowed any Germans from participating. German general Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz and the German ambassador, Konstantin von Neurath, informed Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg of the Ottoman request for German assistance in crushing the resistance. The Germans refused, fearing that it would be cited by the Ottomans to insinuate that Germans had initiated the anti-Christian atrocities. The defenders launched a surprise attack on Ottoman troops during the night of November 13–14, which led to a truce (lobbied for by the Germans) that ended the resistance on favorable terms for the villagers. On 25 December 1915, the Ottoman government decreed that "instead of deporting all of the Syriac people" they were to be confined "in their present locations". By this time most of Tur Abdin was in ruins with the exception of villages that resisted and some families that found refuge in monasteries. Other Syriacs had fled south into modern-day Syria and Iraq.
Ethnic violence in Iran
|Les Assyriens et les Assyro-Chaldéens sur les routes de l’exil, 1915–1935.|
Following their expulsion from Hakkari, the Assyrians were resettled by the Russian occupation authorities, with their herds, around Khoy, Salmas and Urmia. Their presence incurred the resentment of locals for worsening living standards. The Assyrian men from Hakkari offered their services to the Russian military. Their knowledge of local terrain made them useful, but they were poorly disciplined. In 1917, Russia's withdrawal from the war following the Russian Revolution made prospects of a return to Hakkari grow even more dim. Assyrian and Armenian militias continued to police the area, but they frequently abused their power and committed unprovoked killings of Muslims. The Assyrians recalled being promised an independent country by the British if they held out against Ottoman attacks.
From February to July 1918, the region was engulfed by ethnic violence. On 22 February, local Muslims along with the Persian governor launched an uprising against the Christian militias in Urmia. The better-organized Christians led by Agha Petros brutally crushed the uprising, killing hundreds and possibly thousands. On 16 March, Mar Shimun was assassinated by the Kurdish chieftain Simko Shikak. Assyrians went on a killing spree; unable to find Simko, they began to murder Persian officials. Kurds responded by massacring Christians regardless of denomination or ethnicity. Christians were massacred in Salmas in June and in Urmia in early July and Assyrian women were abducted on a large scale. Hellot-Bellier says that the interethnic violence of 1918 and 1919 "demonstrate[s] the degree of violence and resentment which had accumulated throughout all of these years of war and the break-up of the long-standing links between the inhabitants of the Urmia region". According to Gaunt, Assyrian "victims, when given the chance, turned without hesitation into perpetrators".
Exile in Iraq
The Christian militias in Urmia proved no match for the organized Ottoman army in 1918. Tens of thousands of Assyrians of both Ottoman and Persian origin fled to Hamadan, where the British Dunsterforce was garrisoned, on 18 July to escape Ottoman forces commanded by Ali İhsan Sâbis who were approaching Urmia. The Ottoman invasion was followed by killings of Christians. Some remained in Persia, but there was another anti-Christian massacre on 24 May 1919. The Persian government refused to allow the return of Assyrians who had fled as requested by the United Kingdom. During the journey to Hamadan, the Assyrians were harassed by Kurdish irregulars and others died of exhaustion. Many were killed near Heydarabad and another 5,000 during an ambush by Ottoman forces and Kurdish irregulars near Sahin Ghal’e mountain pass.
Entirely dependent on the British for protection, they were resettled in a refugee camp in Baqubah, which held fifteen thousand Armenians and thirty-five thousand Assyrians in October 1918. Conditions at the camp were poor and it was estimated that 7,000 Assyrians died there. In 1920, it was shut down and Assyrians hoping to return to Urmia or Hakkari were sent northwards to Midan. About 4,500 Assyrians were resettled around Duhok and Akre. They worked for the British as mercenaries in Mandatory Iraq, but this employment had a disastrous cost as the British never followed through with repeated promises to resettle Assyrians where they would be safer. Instead, after the end of the mandate, Assyrians were killed in the 1933 Simele massacre. After the massacre, France allowed 24,000 to 25,000 Assyrians to resettle along the Khabur in northeastern Syria. Other Assyrians were exiled in the Caucasus, Russia, or Lebanon, while a few emigrated abroad to the United States, Canada, South America, or Europe.
Syriacs in Turkey
A few thousand Assyrians remained in Hakkari after 1915 and others managed to return after the war. Armed by the British, in 1920 Agha Petros led a group of Assyrians from Tyari and Tkhuma seeking to return, but was repulsed by Rashid Bek, the chieftain of Barwar, and the Turkish army. All of the remaining Assyrians were driven out again in 1924 by a Turkish army commanded by Kazim Karabekir and the mountains were left depopulated. In Siirt, Islamicized Syriacs, primarily women were left behind, and their Kurdified or Arabized descendants continue to live there. The survivors lost access to their property and were reduced to landless agricultural laborers, or later urban underclass. The depopulated Christian villages were resettled by Kurds or Muslims from the Caucasus. During and after the genocide, more than 150 churches and monasteries were demolished and others were converted to mosques or other uses, while many manuscripts and cultural objects were destroyed.
After 1923, local politicians went on an anti-Christian campaign that negatively affected the Syriac communities (such as Adana, Urfa or Adiyaman) that had not been affected by the 1915 genocide. Many were forced to abandon their properties and flee to Syria, eventually settling in Aleppo, Qamishli, or the Khabur. The Syriac Orthodox patriarchate was expelled from Turkey in 1924, despite its efforts to declare loyalty to the new Turkish government. Unlike Armenians, Jews, and Greeks, Assyrians were not recognized as a minority group in the Treaty of Lausanne. The remaining population lived in submission to Kurdish aghas, and were subjected to constant harassment and abuse which pushed them to emigrate. Turkish laws denaturalized those who had fled and confiscated their property. Despite their actual citizenship rights, many Assyrians who remained in Turkey had to re-purchase their own properties from Kurdish aghas or risk losing their Turkish citizenship. Some Assyrians continued to live in Tur Abdin until the 1980s; this was the last substantial Christian population in Turkey living rurally in its original homeland. Some scholars have described ongoing exclusion and harassment of Syriacs in Turkey as a continuation of the Sayfo.
Paris Peace Conference
In 1919, various Assyrians attended the Paris Peace Conference and attempted to lobby for compensation for their war losses. Although often labeled "the Assyrian delegation" in historiography, it was neither an official delegation nor a cohesive entity. Many of them demanded monetary reparations for their war losses and an independent state. All emphasized that it would not be possible for Assyrians to live under Muslim rule. The territory claimed by the Assyrians included parts of modern-day Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
Although there was considerable sympathy for the Assyrians, in the end none of their demands were fulfilled. The British and the French had other plans for the Middle East, and Mustafa Kemal was transforming Turkey in a way that was incompatible with Assyrian ambitions. Many Assyrians felt betrayed that the promises of an Assyrian homeland that had been made in exchange for their support of the Allies were not fulfilled, despite the high price that they paid for fighting on the Allied side during the war.
Assyrian delegates at the Paris Peace Conference stated that their losses were 250,000 for both the Ottoman Empire and Persia, around half the prewar population. In 1923, at the Lausanne Conference, they changed their estimate to 275,000. The source of these figures is unknown and, according to Gaunt, their accuracy has not been possible to verify. Gaunt argues that "given the nature of the peace conference and the desire of the Christians to be compensated for the extent of their suffering, it would have been natural for them to have exaggerated the figures". In some areas, more than 50 percent of Syriacs were killed, but in Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra, the mostly Chaldean population was left intact. In comparison with the Armenian genocide, the Sayfo was less systematic. In some places, all Christians were killed equally, but elsewhere, local officials spared Syriacs while targeting Armenians. Although in most places where they were targeted, Christians were killed without resistance, when they resisted, the Ottoman authorities at the highest level directly ordered attacks on Syriac Christians.
|Persia||40,000||Gaunt argues that this figure is most likely an overestimate and "there is no reliable figure for the Assyrian victims in Persia". Historian Donald Bloxham argues that there were "perhaps 7,000 Persian Assyrians" killed in 1915.|
|Van vilayet (including Hakkari)||80,000||Gaunt: "This is a very high figure and should be treated with caution". Bloxham states that the Ottoman Assyrian dead "might be in the region of 20,000–30,000".|
|Diyarbekir vilayet||63,000||Catholic priest Jacques Rhétoré estimated that 60,725 Syriac Orthodox, 10,010 Chaldeans, 3,450 Syriac Catholics, and 500 Protestants were killed out of 144,185 Christian deaths in Diyarbekir, while British Army officer Edward Noel had an estimate of 96,000 Syriac Orthodox, 7,000 Chaldeans, 2,000 Syriac Catholics, and 1,200 Protestants out of 157,000 Christian deaths.|
|Harput vilayet||15,000||Historian Raymond Kévorkian states that Syriacs were spared from deportation from Harput.|
|Bitlis vilayet||38,000||Rhétoré estimated that before the war, there were 60,000 Christians living in the Siirt sanjak including 15,000 Chaldeans and 20,000 Syriac Orthodox. The Syriac Orthodox Church estimated its losses at 8,500 for the vilayet.|
|Adana vilayet, Der Zor and elsewhere||5,000||Gaunt lists Adana as a place where the Syriac population was not affected by the Sayfo.|
|Urfa sanjak||9,000||Gaunt lists Urfa as a place where the Syriac population was not affected by the Sayfo.|
In historiography, the Sayfo has been considered both as a political genocide, emphasizing growing role of ideology and nationalism in causing the genocide, and a colonial genocide, a mixture of killing and expulsion committed to redistribute land and property to a different population. It was closely related to the Armenian genocide, but remains much less known, in part because its targets were divided between mutually antagonistic churches and did not develop a collective identity. The killing of Assyrians in Diyarbekir can be considered a spillover of the Armenian genocide, but that in Hakkari and Urmia was "a typical wartime and retributive genocide", according to historian Tessa Hofmann.
For Assyrians, the Sayfo is considered the greatest example of persecution of Assyrians in the modern era. Assyrian survivors narrated their experiences by referencing local conditions such as desire for land and Islamic fanaticism, not understanding the broader political context. Eyewitness accounts of the genocide were typically passed down in an oral tradition rather than in written form. Memories of the genocide were often passed down in lamentations. Following large-scale migration to Western countries in the second half of the twentieth century, where Assyrians enjoyed greater freedom of speech, survivor accounts began to be communicated more publicly especially by grandchildren of the survivors. In 1995, the Kurdish TV station MED TV began to broadcast programs on the Assyrian genocide—the first time this history had been articulated for a broader audience. It was discovered that Kurds did not object to the programs and in 1995 the Kurdish Parliament in Exile officially recognized the Assyrian genocide, which helped Kurdish and Assyrian activists work together.
Beginning in the 1990s, prior to the first academic research on the genocide, Assyrian diaspora groups began the quest for formal recognition of the Sayfo as genocide, patterned off earlier campaigns for Armenian genocide recognition. In parallel to the political campaign, Armenian genocide research began to mention Assyrians as victims. In December 2007, the International Association of Genocide Scholars passed a resolution officially recognizing the Assyrian genocide. The Sayfo is recognized as a genocide by resolutions passed by the parliaments of Sweden (in 2010); Armenia (2015), the Netherlands (2015), and Germany (in 2016). Memorials in Armenia, Australia, Belgium, France, Greece, Sweden, Ukraine, and the United States commemorate the victims of the Assyrian genocide.
Denial and justification
The Turkish government denies the Assyrian genocide, but unlike its denial of the Armenian genocide it prefers to avoid addressing the Assyrian genocide altogether. After the 1915 genocide, the Turkish government was initially successful at silencing discussion of it in high culture and written works. Non-Turkish music and poetry were suppressed, and the Syriac Orthodox Church discouraged discussion of the Sayfo for fear of reprisals from the Turkish government. Those who seek to justify the destruction of Assyrian communities in the Ottoman Empire cite military resistance of some Assyrians against the Ottoman government. Gaunt, Atto, and Barthoma state that "under no circumstances are states allowed to annihilate an entire population simply because it refuses to comply with a hostile government order to vacate their ancestral homes". The Assyrian idealization of their military leaders, even those who committed war crimes against Muslims, has also been cited as a reason why all Assyrians deserved their fate. In Turkish academia, the historians Mehmet Çelik and Bülent Özdemir are the main exponents of the idea that there was no Assyrian genocide.
In 2000, Syriac Orthodox priest Yusuf Akbulut was recorded by journalists without his knowledge stating: "At that time it was not only the Armenians but also the Assyrians [Süryani] who were massacred on the grounds that they were Christians". The journalists gave the recording to Turkish prosecutors who charged Akbulut with inciting ethnic hatred based on this statement. Assyrian diaspora activists mobilized around Akbulut, persuading several MPs from European countries to attend his trial; after more than a year, he was released without a conviction. In 2001, the National Security Council (Turkish intelligence agency) commissioned a report on the activities of the Assyrian diaspora.
Turkish-Australians interviewed by researcher Adriaan Wolvaardt had the same attitude towards the Assyrian genocide as the Armenian genocide, rejecting both as unfounded. Wolvaardt found that raising the issue of the Assyrian genocide is "viewed as a form of hate directed against Turks". Some had considered leaving Fairfield because a memorial to the victims of the Assyrian genocide was built there.
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