In 1900 Christians constituted around 32% of Ottoman Turkey’s population. Just 27 years later the figure was down to about 1.8%.
In early 1915, a fatwa was issued against non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. Muslims were called to fight the Christian minorities with whom they had been living as neighbours, albeit not on equal or necessarily peaceful terms. Many refused to take part, but those who did inflicted colossal suffering and destruction on the Armenian, Greek and Assyrian Christians.
It is thought that over 1.5 million Armenians, up to 750,000 Assyrians and up to 1.5 million Greeks – men, women and children – were killed in the state-sanctioned genocide over a 30-year period; yet their tragic loss is barely remembered today. The Armenians’ Golgotha and the Assyrians’ Seyfo (“sword”) is a forgotten genocide against forgotten peoples.
As the Ottoman Empire began to crumble in the late 1800s, the Sultan introduced new reforms to try to prevent the Empire’s non-Muslim minorities from seceding; the reforms supposedly provided religious equality, thus appeasing religious minorities. However, the Turks lost lands in the Balkans after Russia intervened to protect Slavic Christians from Ottoman brutality in Europe in the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war. This loss of territory led to a change in Ottoman tactics: violent suppression of the non-Muslim subjects they feared were wanting to secede.
Armenians, Assyrians and Greek Christians had been treated as second-class citizens for centuries, in accordance with Islamic sharia law, but they had also suffered, unprotected, from Turkish and Kurdish raids. As they began to campaign for their rights, Sultan Abdul Hamid II dealt with them “not by reform but by blood.”¹
In 1894-1896 organised massacres against Christians took place, during which as many as 300,000 Armenians died. Many Christians believed their best chance of escaping Ottoman dominion was by appealing to “Christian” powers in the West and Russia. Bar sending warnings—which went unheeded—and some aid provided by Western Christian missionaries, no help came.
By 1913, the Young Turks had come to power and begun adopting a new policy whereby the Ottoman Empire no longer accepted multiple ethnicities and religions; the militaristic leadership opted to force “Turkish”, subsequently Muslim, homogeneity on all its subjects.
The “Armenian Question”
The former Christian kingdom of Armenia had become part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, located in its north-eastern corner. Armenian people were a significant minority and lived throughout the Empire, making them a perceived threat. In late 1914, extermination became the authorities’ extreme answer to the so-called “Armenian question”.
Though many Armenians fought for the Empire in the First World War, the government chose to systematically disarm and kill Armenian soldiers. Some were murdered in public squares or by using the Islamic method for slaughtering animals: tied-up, put on their backs and throats slit. On 24 April 1915 authorities arrested and later executed Armenian intellectuals and leaders.
Christians were freighted by train or forced to walk hundreds of miles without provisions to concentration camps in the Syrian Desert for “manual labour”. Only one quarter of all deportees survived the exposure, starvation, violent attacks and other abuses to reach their destinations, whereupon many were murdered in organised killings. Those who tried to protect Armenians often met the same end. Killing units in Deir al-Zor smashed children against rocks, mutilated adults with swords, and burned people alive. Some 200,000 Armenians converted to Islam in order to be spared. In 1915 alone, approximately 800,000 Armenians were killed.
The Assyrian Seyfo
Assyrians, a much smaller minority in the Ottoman Empire, comprising Assyrian, Syriac and Chaldean Christians, suffered the same experiences as the Armenians. In Van and Diyarbakir provinces, over 140,000 Assyrians were killed.
The attacks against the Assyrians began on a relatively small scale, but after the Assyrians had joined with the Russians in 1915 to try to help liberate the Armenians in Van, they were subjected to a level of violence that almost annihilated them. Many Assyrians fled to Persia (Iran) but were persecuted by both Persians and Kurds, obliging them to move again to Hamadan, northern Persia, in 1918; this retreat led to the deaths and kidnappings of one third of their people. Their road became littered with the bodies of those who were starved, exhausted, diseased, or slaughtered by Turks, Persians and Kurds en route.
We have lost by death and murder more than 12,000 souls … Unspeakably shameful acts were done to five-year-old girls by Persians. We have collected from Moslem villages more than 100 women who have been changed to Mahomedans and their husbands murdered in their sight. (Letter from the Rev. Gabriel Alexander, dated 6 August 1915, published in The Times, 9 October 1915 ²)
Ottoman Greeks have been described as the “first victims of the nationalising idea.”³ They lived in Anatolia, especially near the Black Sea. In 1914 plans were made to relocate them to Greece in exchange for Muslims from the Balkans. The outbreak of World War One prevented this, so, instead, communities were forced on death marches to central Anatolia under the guise of strategic military manoeuvring or made to perform manual labour. Muslim boycotts of Greek businesses were authorised by officials, and Christian properties were given to Muslims. An Australian newspaper reported:
Several Greeks at Marsivan were compelled to dig a trench as a grave before they were shot. Greek women were given the alternatives of embracing the Islam religion or death. They refused to change their religion. Their lives were spared, but they were left to the mercy of the soldiers and compelled to accompany the troops on a long march. Some fell exhausted, and were abandoned with their babies. (Published in The Argus, Melbourne, 3 August 1915 4)
Unlike most men, women and children were often given the option of converting to Islam. Those that refused were treated very harshly or killed.
Turkey continued to rid itself of all Christians. Thousands of Ottoman Greeks died and more fled as Turkish armies sought reprisals on Christian populations following Greece’s failed invasion, 1919-1922. Armenians continued to be massacred, deported, or forced to flee, even after the Republic of Armenia was established in May 1918. Protection came when the Red Army brought Armenia under Soviet control in 1920. The Armenian diaspora exists all around the world today.
Assyrians were expelled and forced to live in refugee camps in the southern Caucasus, though some women and children remained as slaves. They were to experience further massacres just ten years later in Iraq.
The psychological impact and immense suffering of these peoples, who so nearly came to complete destruction, continues today. This year 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the single worst year of the genocide. Armenians remember especially 24 April 1915, the day on which their intellectuals and leaders were destroyed, the day on which, they say, “our head was cut off”. Their sufferings have, for the most part, been forgotten, Turkey has never admitted responsibility, and, worst of all, the Christian presence in the Middle East is yet again in danger of eradication, this time at the hands of the Islamic State militants.