By: Alberto M. Fernandez*
Assyrian Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Gewargis III, speaking at the Budapest ConferenceRecently, the government of Hungary organized its second International Conference on Christian Persecution. Held in Budapest and focusing on highlighting the most persecuted religious group on the planet, it was attended by more than 650 participants from 40 countries. Hungary has not only been in the forefront of advocacy for persecuted Christians, it has provided humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to these battered communities through its Hungary Helps program.
There was a fascinating cultural divide among some of the speakers. While Hungarian officials, including Prime Minister Viktor Orban, were forthright, even thankfully blunt, about their solidarity with these martyred communities of coreligionists, other European and American speakers clothed their remarks in the liberal language of human rights, as if being too specific about who exactly was being persecuted and why made them uncomfortable.
And yet these same Westerners came from countries where local mosques and Islamic religious teaching systems had been handed over to Salafists with disastrous results or where Islamist Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) funds and controls hundreds of mosques, imbuing them with the religious ideology favored by Turkey’s ruling party. These are the same European countries where the antisemitic tendencies of certain immigrant populations is downplayed. Depending on the speaker, it sometimes seemed as if “two Europes” were speaking at the Budapest Conference – a living one best typified by the Hungarians identifying with one of the most important pillars of European identity, and a flailing one unsure of what it believes but pathetically eager to please and not offend.
Three thousand miles away from an international conference on Christian persecution, the issue of Christian persecution was being played out on the ground. In 2018, Turkey, under the aggressively Islamist tutelage of President Erdogan, took over the Syrian region of Afrin, cleansing it of non-Muslims (Christians and Yazidis).
In late 2019, another chunk of Syria was cleansed of its non-Muslims (Christians and Yazidis) at the hands of Turkish-controlled Syrian Islamist militias. Although both actions were part of Turkey’s long-standing struggle with Kurdish nationalism, non-Muslims paid a price, as has happened in past years in Turkish areas such as Diyarbakir and Tur Abdin. By November 2019, these Turkish-directed Arab militias were bearing down on the crossroad town of Tell Tamer, important because of its location on the M4 highway connecting northeast Syria with Aleppo in the west.
Tell Tamer had once been an entirely Assyrian Christian town, but that was decades ago. By the 1990s, that population had fallen to probably 20%, and continued to fall in subsequent decades. Outside of the town stretched 30 small farming villages which had been inhabited mostly by Assyrian Christian refugees since their founding by the League of Nations in 1935. One might ask, Refugees from where? The answer illustrates, in graphic detail, the tortuous 20th century for many Middle East Christians.
The Khabour Assyrians are a small remnant of a larger population that lived for centuries in the Hakkari mountains of what is now southeastern Turkey. These were pastoral mountain Christian tribes, under the religious and temporal authority of their patriarch, who had been based in the village of Qodchanis since the 17th century. The abandoned and battered patriarchal church of Mar Shalita still stands there, in the ruins of Qodchanis, along with the ruins of more than 220 other churches in the region. In 1915, targeted by Ottoman troops and Kurdish irregulars during the First World War, this entire population was forced to flee, a fighting retreat through the mountains as tens of thousands died – Assyrian flintlocks against Turkish Mausers and artillery.
The Assyrian genocide survivors made it to Urmia in Iran, where once again they faced massacre at the hands of the Turks and Kurds. Reading records of the time recalls nothing less than the mayhem of ISIS a century later; slaughter, rape, and slavery; forced conversion; brutality against children; utter destruction of churches. After the war, the new Turkish Republic did not allow these Assyrians to return to their homeland.
Having been massacred in modern-day Turkey and then in modern-day Iran, these Assyrians found a precarious refuge in Iraq. But in 1933 they faced still another massacre at the hands of a newly independent Iraqi Army – the first of many that this force would carry out over the years. Thousands of Assyrians fled into French-controlled Syria.
Some of the descendants of these Assyrian survivors of the massacres of 1915, 1918, and 1933 would be taken hostage by ISIS in February 2015, when the terrorist group succeeded in overrunning some of the Khabour villages. Most of the 226 hostages would be ransomed by the Assyrian community, at great cost, in a process that took over a year. It seems that none of these may have returned to Syria, and what was once a population of over 10,000 in 2014 was reduced to less than a thousand by the time the Turks showed up in 2019.
Among the forces bravely resisting their advance were explicitly Christian local militias such as the Khabour Guards and the Syriac Military Council, but these forces were quite modest and equipped with small arms. Even with Syrian Kurds making a desperate deal with Russia to stop the Turkish advance, the Assyrian rural settlement on the Khabour as a viable community seems over, as it becomes a potential future military frontline.
A fierce Assyrian attachment to their roots may ensure the survival of small urban communities in larger towns like Tell Tamer and Al-Hasakeh, but not much more. What the Ottomans began a century ago was continued by the Islamic State and a Turkish Republic pursuing its vendetta with Kurdish nationalism while manipulating great-power rivalries.
The seeming end of a once thriving community in Syria and the dire state of Middle East Christians generally is cause for great alarm, but not for total despair. There is still something that can be salvaged from the fire if we have the will to do so. The presence of eloquent, heroic leaders in Budapest, such as Coptic Orthodox Bishop Angaelos and Assyrian Patriarch Mar Gewargis III, were testaments of hope. The laborious efforts (including by Hungary, among others) to help Iraqi Christians and Yazidis rebuild their communities after the devastation of ISIS are another – even as the fate of such communities still hangs in the balance in the wake of Iraq’s political turmoil and pervasive corruption. The region’s dystopian present is not just a danger to Christians, but to all of its inhabitants.
Along with hope, there was a warning in Budapest. Much of the discussion was, rightly, about endangered Christian communities in the Middle East. In a way, this was talking about a disaster that had already happened. But experts and churchmen from Nigeria, South Sudan, and Ethiopia sounded the tocsin about ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, and Islamist/jihadist penetration occurring and seemingly picking up pace in a broad swathe of Africa across the Sahel belt and along the Indian Ocean coast. As much of the world – those that even care about the issue – struggle to pick up the pieces in the Middle East, this looming African conflict seems to be one of the great catastrophes of tomorrow.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of MBN, or the U.S. government.