Today (April 24) is the centennial of the Armenian genocide. Actually it is the day selected to commemorate the death of any many as 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, but the Armenian genocide really began with government-sanctioned massacres starting in 1894, and continued until well after the end of World War I.
The Armenian genocide was an archetypal case of what we now call “ethnic cleaning,” an officially-sanctioned campaign to eliminate a religious class – in this instance, Christians – from the lands of a nation. Hundreds of thousands of victims were murdered outright, and many more died in the course of a forced migration into Syria and Russia.
It is right that we remember and pray for those Armenian martyrs for their faith. It is also right that we remember and pray for the other Christian martyrs who died during the Greek and Assyrian genocide. There is no designated Day of Remembrance for these victims.
While the Young Turks, military dictators ruling the Ottoman Empire, sought to eradicate the Armenian presence from their lands, they did not fail to pursue the elimination of Assyrian and Greek Christians as well. The genocide against the Assyrian people – remembered by descendants of the victims as “Sayfo” or “the year of the sword” – generally coincided with the Armenian genocide, much of it perpetrated in early 1915. “Assyrian” is a term which encompasses a number of ethnically related Christian communities, including members of the Assyrian Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Assyrian Apostolic (Orthodox) Churches.
Greek Christians living in Turkey were targeted for massacre and deportation beginning before World War I, but this campaign too reached a bloody crescendo in early 1915. “It is believed that in Turkey between 1913 and 1922 … more than 3.5 million Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians were massacred in a state-organized and state-sponsored campaign of destruction and genocide, aiming at wiping out from the emerging Turkish Republic its native Christian populations” (president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, 2007).
The current map of Near Eastern Christianity is drawn in the blood of these martyrs. The Christians of Iraq and Syria are predominantly the descendants of those who fled the Ottoman atrocities or were forcibly deported. And as though caught in some gruesomely repetitious video loop of history, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the victims of the Turkish genocides are now themselves targets of a new genocide, another campaign of extermination at the hands of radical Islamic militias.
In Iraq, the Islamic State has sent a hundred thousand Christians into exile, mostly members of the Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox Churches. They have fled into the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where the Chaldean Catholic Church predominates and is now providing assistance to the refugees. The Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church, Joseph Younan, has 15 parishes, 120 religious, and 50,000 laity in exile in Kurdistan. Holding these parishes together as cohesive communities is a critical priority, and a focus of our efforts at Solidarity with the Pilgrim Church.
On this Day of Remembrance, we should remember and pray for the martyrs and the refugees in Iraq. We should pray for the safety of the half a million Christians remaining in Syria, who are placed at risk because of civil war. Two Orthodox bishops of Aleppo in Syria, Gregorios Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Paul Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church, were kidnapped on April 22, 2013, and are presumably being held by Islamic militants. We pray for their safe return.
The biggest question of the current situation is this: will the Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria ever be able to return to their homes. Or will they of necessity become a part of the diaspora, and move on to Europe and the United States? We pray, finally, that the genocides perpetrated against the Christians in the Near East over the past hundred years and more will not succeed in the eliminating the Christian presence from the place where Christianity was born.
Steven Wagner is the president of Solidarity with the Pilgrim Church, a non-profit organization based in Washington DC which raises funds to support the Church where it is confronting persecution. www.solidaritypilgrimchurch.org.