His Holiness Patriarc Mor Ignatius Aphrem II opened the centennial commemoration of Sayfo on Sunday January 11, 2015 celebrating the Divine Liturgy at St. George Cathedral in Damascus.
Sayfo is the Syriac name of the genocide that affected the Syriac Christians in the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century. The number of victims in Sayfo amounts of half a million Syriac speaking people who were killed in a genocide which aimed at erasing the Christian presence in the region. The Ottoman authorities slaughtered the Syriacs as well as Armenians and other Christians; they confiscated their properties and violated their women. They turned churches into farms or restaurants in order to remove all signs of Christianity in the East.
The Divine Liturgy was attended by Their Excellencies Syrian MP Mrs. Maria Saade, Minister of Social Affairs Dr. Kinda Al-Shammat, Minister of Health Dr. Nizar Wehbe Yaziji and representatives of church leaders in Syria, their Graces: Bishop Aphrem Maalouli representing His Beatitude Greek Orthox Patriarch John X, Bishop Joseph Absi representing His Beatitude Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorius III Lahham, Apostolic Nuncio in Syria Mgr. Mario Zenari, and Armenian Orthodox Bishop of Damascus Armash Nalbandian. His Holiness was assisted by their Eminences Mor Selwanos Boutros AL-Nehmeh, Archbishop of Homs, Hama and Environs, Mor Ioannis Boulos Al-Souqi, Patriarchal Vicar in the Patriarchal Diocese in Damascus. Their Eminences Mor Dionysius Jean Kawak, Patriarchal Assistant, Mor Timotheos Matta Al-Khoury, Patriarchal Secretary, and Mor Timotheos Matthew, Patriarchal Secretary for Indian Affairs also attended the Divine Liturgy.
His Holiness declared the opening of the Centennial saying: “We gather together today to launch the Centennial Commemoration of the Syriac Genocide ‘Sayfo’ which were committed against our innocent Syriac people, whose only guilt was having a different religion than their slaughterers for they preferred to remain attached to the faith of their fathers and forefathers than changing their religion or way of worship”.
The patriarch highlighted the fact that today is yesterday’s image: “One hundred years after Sayfo, we are confronting a new genocide. New persecutors have emerged and are killing all those who refuse injustice or to change their religion. It seems they are trying to accomplish what was not completed a hundred years ago. His tools may have changed a little, but his goal is one, to kill those who refuse to be deprived of their liberties”. He added that “our message today is clear, and we launch it from the historical capital Damascus, so the entire world knows that this is our land and we will not renounce it whatever the reasons. We cry out loud with St. Paul saying: what shall separate us from the love of Christ – and our country – Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
Patriarch Aphrem explained that: “what the Syrian and Iraqi people are experiencing these days – namely immigration, slaughter by the enemies of good and humanity – is a crime of the level of a genocide, a genocide of the human souls and civilizations that have existed in these regions”. He also criticized the international organizations of Human Rights that closely observe these crimes and do not react in the appropriate measure.
His Holiness said that the 1915 genocide resulted in 500 thousand Syriac-speaking people losing their lives as martyrs of their faith”. He added: “the genocide avouches two reasons: a religious cleansing of Christians from the cradle of Christianity, and the Syriac people never felt belonging to an ethnicity different than theirs, or spoke a language other than Syriac or Arabic. In this way, they stood against the policy that supporting only the Turkish identity on the Ottoman territory”.
Moreover, His Holiness explained that the name Sayfo comes from the Syriac word ‘Sayfo’ which means ‘Sword’ and reflects the horrible way with which our people was put to death. He illustrated this with the example of a mother whose legs and arms were amputated and she was forced to feed her baby holding him with her teeth.
His Holiness Patriarch Aphrem II concluded: “May our Lord pour His mercy on the souls of the martyrs of Sayfo and the martyrs of Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria especially in Sadad, Aleppo, Al-Jazeerah and everywhere in this beloved country”.
After the Divine Liturgy, His Holiness lit the flame which was especially placed for the commemoration of the centennial. Roses were placed in front of the flame in respect of the memory of the martyrs of Sayfo and the martyrs of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Afterwards, His Holiness opened the Photo exhibition which documents the 1915 massacres and launched the website of the Centennial: www.sayfosyriacgenocide.org