By Craig S. Semon
Telegram & Gazette Staff
His Holiness Patriach Mor Igantius Aphrem II, left, meets with the Rev.His Holiness Patriach Mor Igantius Aphrem II, left, meets with the Rev. Maroutha Hanna of St. Mary’s Syriac Orthodox Church in Shrewsbury on Thursday. T&G Staff/Steve Lanava
SHREWSBURY – A world religious leader is in town to help commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Syriac genocide, while hoping to help prevent massacres from happening again.
His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of the Holy See of Antioch and All the East, Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox, is the guest of honor at the 51st annual Syriac Orthodox Archdiocesan Convention, hosted by St. Mary’s Syriac Orthodox Church.
With the theme “Sayfo, Lest We Forget,” the four-day convention, which started Thursday and concludes Sunday, commemorates the centennial of the Syriac genocide – the mass slaughter of the Syriac population by the Ottoman Empire and those in neighboring Persia (by Ottoman troops) during World War I.
The Syriac genocide took place in conjunction with the Armenian and Greek genocides.
“We estimate that more than 500,000 of our people were killed during the years of Sayfo (which is the Syriac word for “sword”),” the patriarch said. “We thought it was right and fitting that we dedicate it (this year’s convention) to the hundreds of thousands that were killed and millions of Christians of other churches that were also killed for their faith.”
Born in Kamishly, Syria, the patriarch became the 123rd Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch when he was enthroned on May 29, 2014, in Damascus. Before his election to the patriarchate, he was archbishop for the Eastern United States of America. In that role, he established 11 new parishes, introduced new programs for youth and worked for interchurch unity.
Prior to the start of the convention, the patriarch said they will remind people at the convention what happened 100 years ago so they are prepared for it, if or when, it happens again. Even today, he said, Syriac-speaking people continue to suffer at the hands of terrorists in the Middle East, Syria and Iraq.
“We believe if the world had reacted to the 1915 genocide, other genocides would not have happened in the 20th century,” he said.
The patriarch said there is always going to be evil in the world, and in 100 years, the state of the world is getting worse rather than better. It’s up to all human beings, especially for the countries’ governments, to be more responsible, vigilant and to stop the killing of innocent people as soon as it starts, he said.
“Evil can strike everywhere and evil has no boundaries, no religion and no borders,” he said. “The world is not safe for anyone, especially those people who don’t have anyone to defend them. The people and the countries that think they are safe, they should rethink. They should really pay good attention, especially nowadays with what’s happening in Europe and in America. We believe there are many sleeper cells here, even in America, and they will strike when they get a chance.”
Still, the patriarch said, humanity has a fighting chance. And, if humanity listens to its collective “inner voice” bestowed by God and chooses to follow the path of righteousness and peace, then humanity will prevail, he said.
“The martyrs of the Syriac genocide gave up their lives for our faith. That’s very important,” the patriarch said. “And because of their sacrifice, we still have faith. We still exist. We’re still practicing our faith.”
During the Syriac genocide, the Syriac civilian population of upper Mesopotamia (the Tur Abdin region, the Hakkari Van and Siirt provinces of present-day southeastern Turkey, and the Urmia region of northwestern Iran) was forcibly relocated and forced to flee their homes without provisions by the Muslim Ottoman (Turkish) army, together with other armed and allied Muslim peoples, including Kurds, Chechens and Circassians. Estimates of the overall death toll vary.
While the Syriac Orthodox Church forgave the Ottoman Empire a long time ago for the Syriac genocide, the patriach said they will never forget.
The patriarch said part of the commemoration of the genocide this week is to start on the path of reconciliation, while demanding from Ottoman descendants to accept responsibility for the Syriac genocide so they can be liberated from feelings of guilt.
“We harbor no hatred, no ill-feeling to anyone, whether they’re descendants of the Ottomans or the other people who took part in the genocide,” the patriarch said. “We have a wound, a deep wound in our lives, in our heart that’s not being healed because, for decades, for a hundred years, we have not talked about the genocide as a church. We have not commemorated it. This is the first time … We need to heal that wound that we have in our hearts.”