A Syriac Christian family from Syria stand at the entrance of the Mort Shmuni Syriac Orthodox Church in the town of Midyat, in Mardin province of southeast Turkey, Feb. 2, 2014. (photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
While the debate rages around Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “1915 condolences,” Syriacs are upset because they were not mentioned in that message. Syriacs, who say they suffered similar massacres they called Sayfo at the same time as the Armenians, expect the Turkish state to take a similar step and issue a condolence message for Syriacs.
After Erdogan’s message, the interest focused on Armenians in Turkey, the Armenian government and the Armenian diaspora. Syriacs, who lost a big part of their population, complain of being forgotten. Syriac associations see Erdogan’s message as an “important first step” but insist that the expression in his message: “It is indisputable that the last years of the Ottoman Empire were a difficult period, full of suffering for Turkish, Kurdish, Arab, Armenians and millions of other Ottoman citizens, regardless of their religion or ethnic origin” did not adequately reflect the Syriacs’ suffering.
Syriacs say their suffering was no less a tragedy than that of the Armenians who have succeeded in capturing interest with their powerful diaspora action since 1965, and with the existence of the state of Armenia.
Evgil Turker, the president of the Federation of Syriac Associations, says the Syriacs were omitted from Erdogan’s message because of Ankara’s intention to limit the scope of condolences. Turker said: “The decision taken in 1915 covered all the Christians. We too suffered tremendously in that context. According to our estimates, 500,000 of our people were massacred. If our population within Turkish borders today is 20,000, that is the consequence of Sayfo. The reason they kept us out of the condolence message is to avoid creating an issue of a Syriac genocide.”
Turker said the government knows well the suffering of the Syriac community: “Until today we only received personal condolence messages from Ankara. AKP officials in our meetings admit that we were treated unfairly, but nevertheless an official declaration was not made.” Turker said Syriacs were not involved in the clashes of World War I. “Perhaps there was some enlightenment in major cities when nationalism made some headway, but there was no awareness in the rural sector. This is why they did not arm or rebel. Actually, they had no organization other than the church.”
Turker thinks Armenia had a major role in the condolence message: “Armenians have their Armenia. But there is no Syriac state. There is no voice to defend us. We are fully dependent on the consciousness of international opinion.”
Tuma Celik, the owner and editor-in-chief of Sabro, the first Syriac newspaper in Turkey, shares Turker’s views. Celik says although he found Erdogan’s message significant, its contents have offended the Syriacs: “Although I should be optimistic about it as a starting point, it is too late. In a message about an issue the state has been persistently denying for 99 years, the impression is that nothing had happened and it was after all a mutual conflict. Showing that denial is still alive created bitterness. In particular, its total ignorance of Syriacs who lost two thirds of their population saddened us.”
Celik stressed that the Syriacs shared the fate of Armenians in 1915 and added: “If all those events were about the Armenians, then where are our people? How were they victimized? If the Syriacs suffered the same fate, how come it is never mentioned? Thinking of this makes us lose hope. You can kill someone once, but denial kills us every day. This is something that causes us agony similar to that of 1915, even more.”
Tuma Celik said the joint historical commission that was proposed by Erdogan in 2005 should also include Syriacs. “We want to be part of such a commission. We want sincerity. If they want to be sincere, they have to take steps for Syriacs also.”
Another criticism of Celik’s was the omission of Syriac from the list of languages used to issue Erdogan’s message. “This message was released in nine languages, but not in our language. This shows us that ‘other Ottoman citizens’ mentioned in the message does not apply to us. That means people who lost some of their population are considered fully nonexistent.”
For Protestant Syriacs, not being mentioned in the message is a major flaw. Isa Karatas, a Syriac researcher and writer, said the message was in general positive despite its flaws. “There is no way to fully cope with old events. They happened. But it is important to show that you understand what had happened. We cannot erase the pain no matter what we do, but we have to stop the denials. [Offering] condolences was a very human approach. We too expected condolences. Syriacs had to be mentioned.”
David Vergili, a member of the executive committee of the European Syriacs Union based in Brussels, attributes their exclusion from the message to late start of Syriac diaspora activities. He said, “It is indisputable that the Syriacs too suffered the same process with the Armenian genocide. That is why the Syriacs had to be in that message. But, it won’t be easy to achieve that. In Turkey, Syriacs are remembered only in connection with the Mor Gabriel monastery.”
He added that historical and political questions of Syriacs have never been on the agenda. Vergili concluded, “Syriacs have been silent for so long. This is one outcome of the genocide they experienced. Their demands for political rights began only after the 1980s when they started to emigrate abroad. In the 1990s, they became more visible. That is why we have been invisible.”
The term “Sayfo Syriacs” [Assouris, Arameans, Chaldeans and Nestorians], used to define what they lived through in 1915, means “sword” in Syriac language. They use it to signify how they were massacred by swords, similar to the term “Medz Yeghern” used by Armenians. They insist in the darkest period of Syriac history, two-thirds of the Syriacs who were living under Ottoman rule were killed. Sweden and Australia officially recognize the Syriac genocide.