It is no exaggeration to say that the ongoing tragic events in Iraq and Syria also have their roots, amongst many other factors, in the way the Middle East socio-political boundaries were redefined during the twentieth century. Far from simplifications presenting the IS militants as medieval fanatics suddenly brought back to life, this perspective allows to understand the dramatic ‘modernity’ behind their claims. This methodological caution applies to the destiny of Christian communities as well and the legitimate concern about their existence. The history of Eastern Christianity is indeed often presented as a continuum in which everything from the Islamic conquest onwards is explained through the conceptual tandem ‘minority-majority’, with little if no attention paid to the diachronic dimension. This choice ends up by concealing the historical nature of the modern representations of the Christian communities in the region.
In fact, their present condition has little in common with the pre-modern epoch, the turning point being set at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. It was during those decades that the European nationalist grid was imposed upon Ottoman territory: the ideal of emancipation first and of independence later, according to the new ideological parameters, spread throughout the numerous ethnic and religious communities that made up the Ottoman Empire. This created anxieties, stirred up old grudges and gave birth to new rivalries. Whereas before the mid-nineteenth century the system of the Ottoman Empire, though far from being ideal, emphasised the universal dimension of religious faith, rising above ethnic and linguistic differences without destroying them, the contemporary redefinition of the traditional millet system through the religious institution of the community (tâ’ifa)1 and the intervention of the Great Powers paved the way for new political movements.
Despite the purported aim of improving the condition of the Christian subjects, the Great Powers entered the Ottoman field by exploiting religious and ecclesial issues to pursue their own political designs at the expense of their rivals. In particular, from the eighteenth century onwards, the Great Powers began to systematically challenge Ottoman internal authority over the subjects of the Empire, imposing their protection over entire communities through the manipulation of the Sultan’s berats (warrants issued to non-Muslim and Muslim individuals granting privileges or conferring properties). This competition offered non-Muslim subjects unprecedented economic opportunities to elevate their condition vis-à-vis their Muslim fellows and made them not only the passive subjects of external and higher designs but also conscious actors in the improvement of their own condition.
Starting from the community level and transposing religious issues into a secular dimension, the ideal of emancipation progressively developed into a struggle for total independence from the Ottoman regime.2 The rediscovery and glorification of ancient languages and cultures fostered the creation of competing ‘new’ ethnic identities. Religious institutions alternatively resisted or supported this transformation but in the end they were swallowed up in what proved to be a far wider political competition. The foundation of national Churches within Orthodoxy and the development of Eastern Catholic Churches, along with the expansion of Roman Catholic and Protestant missions, favoured the fragmentation of the traditional Orthodox and Armenian millets. This resulted in a change in previous local balances of powers within the Empire which in the past had for better or worse guaranteed a certain level of peaceful coexistence. The blind spot of these dynamics was to be tragically displayed on the eve of, and after, the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. In the meantime, while the Christian presence as a minority was being debated within the future new national states, Christians were also being massacred as the final consequence of the imposition of the modern ideal of national homogeneity and ‘purity’.
In this brief sketch I shall concentrate on the case of the Assyrians and the Chaldeans, two terms which, from being univocally related to church and liturgical dimensions, started to be employed as expressions of the existence of a single Syriac-speaking ‘nation’.
On the Eve of the First World War
The concept of Syriac Christianity groups together different Eastern Churches that share the liturgical use of ancient Syriac. The Church of the East (known in the past also as the Nestorian or the Assyrian Church) and the Syriac Orthodox Church (known as the Jacobite Church) emerged from the doctrinal debates at the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). The Church of the East initially extended its presence over a wide territory stretching from the east bank of the Euphrates to Southeast Asia. However, the Mongol invasion severely affected it so that from the fourteenth century onwards its dioceses were reduced to the original boundaries of Mesopotamia and the Turko-Iranian area. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the development of Roman Catholic missionary activities led to divisions in these ancient Churches culminating in the formation of the Chaldean Church (united to Rome) and the Syriac Catholic Church. These finally consolidated their ecclesiastical institutions during the nineteenth century, establishing their Patriarchal sees in Mosul and Mardin respectively.3
Before the First World War broke out, these communities resided in four different but neighbouring areas, now part of modern Turkey, Iraq and Iran, along with Turks, Arabs, Kurds and Armenians.4 In north-western Iran, in the region of Urmiya, Christians of the Church of the East were Persian subjects. In South-western Turkey, within the Kurdish Hakkäri Mountains, Christians were only nominally under the Ottoman Empire and practically autonomous under their tribal chiefs (malik), while the Patriarchal family of Mar Shimoun5 held spiritual, civil and military authority. Missionary accounts recall that there were six Assyrian Christian tribes. The patriarchate was originally at Seleucia-Ctesiphon near Baghdad but at a later epoch it was moved to Kothcanis, a large village near Hakkäri.6 Moreover, these communities were part of a wider tribal system along with the Kurdish tribes. In contemporary South-eastern Turkey, around the cities of Mardin, Diyarbakir and in the mountains of Tur ‘Abdin, the majority of Christians were instead Syrian Orthodox. Finally, in the Tigris Valley region, Christians were predominantly members of the Chaldean Church, especially in the town of Mosul, which was also the centre of this Church.
From the 1830s onwards, an increasing number of Christian missionaries (American Methodists and Presbyterians; French Lazarites and Dominicans; Anglicans; German Lutherans and finally Russian Orthodox) headed to these areas, introducing new ideas and knowledge but also the conviction in the local communities of having found the greatly sought-after protection of powerful external actors. In particular, these contacts not only brought about previously unknown economic opportunities but also introduced the idea of nationhood, developing an unprecedented notion of ‘us’ and ‘them’. At the same time, the development of the Ottoman reforms (Tanzimat) contributed to nourishing the ideal of, and desire for, emancipation, which, however, inevitably conflicted with the core of the new Ottoman policies which sought to reinforce the central administration’s control over its subjects and provinces. The project of stabilizing the Ottoman-Persian border within the Kurdish mountains and reducing the traditional autonomy of the Kurdish and Assyrian Christian tribes, along with the programme of restricting Armenian activism, drastically altered the local balance of power.
The ascent of Sultan Abdul Hamid II to the throne (1876) and the reversal of the Tanzimat did not improve the situation. The rise of nationalist and pro-nationalist movements amongst Armenians, Kurds and Assyrians continued to develop. In particular, the crushing of the Kurdish rebellion in 1880, and the parallel official recognition of the Mar Shimoun as leaders of the Assyrian community, deteriorated inter-communal and inter-tribal relationships in the Hakkäri Mountains. Similarly, the decision to enlist Kurdish tribes in the Hamadiye corps (1890) definitively persuaded the Assyrian tribes of the need of strong external protection.
Since the 1840s the British had competed with the Russians to win over the loyalty of the local Christian communities. The continuous clashes between Turks and the Armenian nationalist movement from the 1880s onwards, with cyclical massacres (Suzum in 1894, Istanbul in 1895 and Van in 1896), contributed to increasing concerns in the whole of the Christian population. In 1908, the removal of Sultan Abdul Hamid II by the Young Turks was initially welcomed with hope. In particular, Christians thought that their situation would improve. Unfortunately, polarization did not stop. New rebellions broke out in the form of attempts to resist the new trend of centralization imposed by the new regime. Under the New Turks, resistance was now understood as a manifestation of ‘betrayal’ of the ‘nation’, therefore liable to the strongest, most systematic repression, and not just as ‘insubordination’ against the Sultan’s authority.
The First World War
In 1915 the extension of military operations to Ottoman territory led to the tragic collapse of any logic of coexistence in these areas. The war thus dramatically amplified the consequences of a half-century of ‘dangerous’ hopes, ideals and misplaced ‘faith’ which displayed their ephemeral nature when faced with the powerful logic of international politics. Most of the Christian population found itself caught between opposing belligerent fronts, inevitably suffering the consequences of the war, becoming the victims of detention and deportation as potential spies and fifth columns within the Empire.
This was particular, the case of the Syrian Christians of Mardin, Diyarbakir and Tur ‘Abdin who, although not directly involved in political activism and military operations, suffered the same fate as most of the Armenians living in what would become modern Turkey.
In 1915 the decision to enlist Ottoman Armenians in Armenian Russian battalions was considered by the Ottomans as the clear fulfilment of their fears. Similarly, the Assyrians of the Hakkäri Mountains under the guide of Mar Shimoun XXI Benyamin, along with those of Urmiya, joined the side of Russia and Britain. Almost immediately, this decision led to irreparable consequences. These took the shape of a forced emigration that would soon turn into a massacre which reached its epilogue only in the 1930s.7
As early as 1915, the Assyrians were forced to seek refuge in the West Azerbaijan provinces occupied by the Russians: Urmiya and Salmas. By 1916 there were about 35,000-40,000 Assyrians living in the refuge camp at Urmya. In 1918, when the Russians withdrew from the war and Mar Shimoun was assassinated by a Kurdish tribal leader, the Assyrians found themselves alone. Although the British had promised support, no concrete help materialized and they were forced to move from Urmiya to Hamadan, then to take refuge in the camp of Ba‘quba and from there to relocate, first to Mindan (1920-1921) and later to Duhok and Aqrah (1921-1933) in the newly founded Kingdom of Iraq.
Thus the First World War and the subsequent experience of clashes, massacres and continuous dislocations from one refuge camp to another represented a decisive turning point in the development of the identity of Christian communities, especially in the diaspora. These contributed to the consolidation and politicization of the idea of an ethnically-based Assyrian identity. The pre-nineteenth century historical experience was pragmatically reinterpreted to give voice to a ‘new’ political and ethnic identity, stabilizing a sort of dilemma between ethnic and religious/Church identity. The diaspora in the West strongly contributed to this process. Since the 1960s the communities in diaspora have displayed an increasing interest in the events that occurred during the Great War. Within this debate, especially during the 1990s, the word seyfo has gained growing prominence. This term, meaning both in Arabic and Syriac ‘sword’, stands in Syriac vernacular for ‘genocide’. This lexical choice was meant to give voice to the claim that during the Armenian deportation of 1915 a systematic massacre had been inflicted upon the Jacobites who lived in the Mardin-Midyat area by Ottoman forces and irregular Kurdish tribal units. Although the use of this terms is still disputed and predominantly associated with the history of Armenians, thereby ignoring the other Christians involved in those events, seyfo plays by now an important role in the development of a communal memory.
The Post-War Period
The reshaping of the Middle East according to the interests of the victorious states, especially France and Britain, only apparently healed the wounds inflicted between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. To a certain extent, once the war had ended and a ‘new’ world of political and economic possibilities had arisen, the interests of the great Western Powers seemed to ignore their old ‘protégées’, leaving them to their destinies.
This holds true especially for Assyrians. The short British Mandate in Iraq did not improve their plight. On the contrary, it frustrated their dreams of independence, distancing them from their original areas of residence and contributing to worsening their relations with the other Iraqi communities through their enlistment in special military units designed to support the Mandate. Finally, in 1933 when the British Mandate in Iraq was over, the long exodus became for many of them a definitive exile to Syria or to Western countries, following the massacre in the village of Semmel by a detachment of the Iraqi army8 and the exile of Mar Shimoun Eschai to Cyprus. To sum up, Britain’s negotiations and geopolitical plans went hand in hand with the ineffectiveness of the League of the Nations and the growth of Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian nationalism. The net result was a major deterioration of the Assyrian community.
With respect to the Chaldeans, their incorporation into the newly founded Iraqi state was less traumatic. No exile was imposed on them. Thanks to their willingness to integrate into the new political entity and the decision to shift from the ideal of an Assyro-Chaldean nation to reinforcing and consolidating communal bonds, they were able to revive and develop their activities in Mosul and Baghdad. Nevertheless, the imposition of unprecedented ‘national’ borders drastically altered the perspective of Christians and their ecclesiastical institutions. In a certain way, it froze their existence within the limits of their granted minority status: a guarantee for the endurance and development of their communal life but also frequently a sort of recurring symbol of the need to prove their efficaciousness, productiveness and allegiance to their Muslim neighbours, especially in times of crises and change.
This article is a part of the issue no. 20 of Oasis, entitled “Sacred Violence? Religions between war and reconciliation”, which will be available soon.
1Kemal. H. Karpat, ‘Millets and Nationality: The Roots of the Incongruity of Nation and State in the Post-Ottoman Era’, in Benjamin Braude and Bernard Lewis (eds), Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire, The Functioning of a Plural Society, Vol. 1 (Homes & Meier Publishers, New York-London, 1982) pp. 147-148.
2Paschalis Kitromilides, An Orthodox Commonwealth: Symbolic Legacies and Cultural Encounters in South-Eastern Europe (Aldershot, Hampshire, Burlington, 2007), pp. 181-182.
3Anthony O’Mahony, ‘Eastern Christianity in Modern Iraq’, in Eastern Christianity. Studies in Modern History, Religion and Politics, edited by Anthony O’Mahony (Melisende, London, 2004), pp. 19-20.
4Suha Rassam, Christianity in Iraq. Its Origins and Development to the Present Day (Gracewing, Leomister, 2006), pp. 105-106.
5The hereditary system of succession of the patriarchate form uncle to nephew was officially established during the mid-fifteenth century. Mar Shimoun IV Basidi imposed this provision to consolidate the socio-political and ecclesiastical structure of the Church after the severe crisis experienced since the end of the thirteenth century when the Mongol khan of Persia Gahazan converted to Islam. In the fourteenth century, Timur’s military campaigns drastically hit the Church of the East forcibly confining it to northern Mesopotamia alone. Consequently, the ancient tradition of scholarship declined and the Patriarch became a secular as well as a religious leader. In these circumstances, a hereditary system of succession was introduced. Since the beginning, this has been a controversial issue in the history of the Church of the East. Growing dissatisfaction arose among its members and the Church split between two opposing factions. In 1552 the Bishops of Arbil, Urmiya and Salmas voiced their opposition and elected an anti-Patriarch. This faction sought and secured the support of the Roman Catholic Church, which consecrated its candidate, thereby ratifying the split between the new-founded Chaldean Catholic Church and the Ancient Church of the East.
6Arthur J. Arberry, Religion in the Middle East. Three Religions in concord and conflict (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1969), p. 524.
7Florence Hellot, ‘La Fin d’un Monde: les Assyro-Chaldéens et la Première Guerre Mondiale’, Bernard Heyberger (ed), Chrétiens du Monde Arabe. Un Archipel en Terre d’Islam, (Cerf, Paris, 2003), pp. 129-30.
8In 1933 a body of armed Assyrians headed for Syria to seek French protection, without having negotiated any agreement with the French authorities. Accordingly, they were refused admission to Syria and on their way back to Iraq they clashed with the Iraqi army at Derabun. These events represented a dangerous warning. Anti-Assyrian measures were taken over the next few days and Kurdish and Arab tribes started looting in Zäkho, Duhok and Shaykhan areas. Refugees poured into Mosul and the central areas of Alqosh and Semmel seeking protection. In Semmel in particular they gathered around the local police station. On the morning of 11 August 1933, Bakr Sidqi, the military commander of Mosul, dispatched a detachment of the Iraqi army with the order to massacre every man in the village.
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