Pope Francis infuriated the government of Turkey by using the word “genocide” leading up to April 24, the 100th anniversary of the start of the mass murder of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in what was then the Ottoman Empire. That atrocity, amid the chaos and rivalries of World War One, is often regarded as the forerunner and inspiration for Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
In the April 15 issue of The Christian Century, Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins reports on another 2015 centennial that major media have ignored -- the “Sayfo” (“sword” year) memorialized by Christian Assyrians. Among other events, historians will examine this at the Free University of Berlin June 24-28. During that dying era of the empire with its historic Muslim Caliphate, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks were also killed during the “Pontic” ethnic cleansing.
The hatred toward all three Christian groups a century ago finds unnerving echoes in current attacks by Muslim fanatics in the Mideast and Africa, most recently the video beheadings of Ethiopian Christians in Libya. Assyrians are also victimized once again, now by ISIS under its purported restoration of the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The Assyrians’ story is part of the over-all emptying out of Christianity across the Mideast.
Assyrians have three sectors that differ doctrinally on the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. The “uniate” Chaldean Catholics loyal to the Pope follow the definition from the A.D. 451 Council of Chalcedon. Two groups do not, the “Nestorians” in the Church of the East, and the monophysite "Oriental Orthodox" (distinct from Eastern Orthodoxy, which adheres to Chalcedon).
Assyrians claim the earliest of Christian roots. Antioch had a church even before the conversion of the apostle Paul, became the original center of Gentile Christianity and fostered Paul ‘s westward missions and legendary eastward expansion by the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew. Assyrians still worship in Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke in antiquity. Jenkins depicts their “glorious” past civilization centered on the Diyarbakir region with its 100 monasteries.
“That world came to a sudden and bloody end,” Jenkins says. At the outset of the war the Assyrians totaled around 600,000, largely in present-day northern Iraq and adjacent Syria and Turkey. What he calls “the Assyrian genocide” exterminated half that population through direct killing or starvation, perhaps more, with 95 percent dead in one province.
Jenkins says Ottoman, Kurdish, or Arab troops repeatedly committed mass murder of men, burned women alive, and bayoneted or drowned children. Historian David Gaunt reports that the Syrian Orthodox counted the deaths of seven bishops, 154 priests and 90,313 lay believers and the destruction of 156 church buildings. The Chaldeans lost six bishops, 50 priests, and 50,000 parishioners. The Nestorians were so devastated and scattered they could never compile data.
Meanwhile, all credit to CNN and Arwa Damon for coverage of Yazidis in refugee camps in the Kurdish sector of Iraq. Their unusual religion, also subject to “Caliphate” persecution, merits a solid explanatory feature. Inaccurately branded as “devil worship” by many Muslims, it blends elements of several religions with distinct tenets.
The refugees say ISIS has captured untold thousands of Yazidis, steals their worldly goods, tells men to convert to Islam or be shot, and orders young women and girls as young as 8 to be concubines of ISIS overlords or sold as sex slaves. Some women refugees told Damon they’d rather have been massacred than be subjected to ISIS kidnapping and rape.
Leaders of the “caliphate” claims such tactics observe Muslim religious law: “Enslaving the families of the kuffar [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of Sharia.”
Moderate Muslims insist these insurgents defy God’s will regarding just warfare, but thus far Islam’s traditional establishment lacks the authority and means to halt the carnage. This growing moral split is likely to disrupt the religion – and engage journalists -- for decades to come.