The Turkish minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bagis, recently compared the Assyrian Genocide to “masturbation.” The comment was reportedly made during a discussion with a Swedish parliamentarian of Assyrian descent at an event organized by Assyrians earlier this year.
While we can’t substantiate exactly what the Turkish minister thinks about the Assyrian Genocide, we know the matter is much more serious for the Assyrians themselves.
When Assyrians think of the genocide that befell their people in the early part of the 20th century, they think about discrimination, violence, rape, murder, deprivation, deportation, and injustice. This I’ve learned while actively working with Assyrian and Greek Diasporan communities to advocate for genocide recognition.
The parliament of South Australia became the first legislative body in the world to recognize the genocide of the Assyrians and Greeks. In a motion in 2009, the South Australian Legislative Assembly stated, “[T]his House condemns the genocide of the Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and other Christian minorities; and all other acts of genocide as the ultimate act of racial, religious, and cultural intolerance.”
This recognition was followed by the motion in Sweden in 2010, when the Reichstag called on the Swedish executive to pressure Turkey to recognize the 1915 genocide against Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians.
The Return of Churches resolution in the Unites States Congress in 2011 was also significant. It was an acknowledgement of the Turkish appropriation of Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek assets under the genocidal policies of the Ottoman state and its successor governments.
In Armenia, the speaker of the Armenian Parliament, Hovik Abrahamyan, called for universal recognition of the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Genocides in 2010. And in 2012 a monument dedicated to the victims of the Assyrian Genocide was revealed in Yerevan. The plaque on the monument reads: “To the innocent Assyrian victims of 1915.” It makes no reference to the word ‘genocide’.
The present-day Assyrian community in Armenia numbers approximately 7,000. Primarily based around four centers—Arzni, Verin-Dvin, Dimitrov, and Ardakers—Assyrians maintain their culture and learn their native Assyrian language in public schools. During my last visit to Armenia, I met with Arsen Mikailov, a leader of the Assyrian community. Mikailov explained that Assyrians had moved to the region in the early 19th century, when it was a part of the Russian Empire, to escape Ottoman tyranny. He was proud that the community is well integrated into Armenian society, suggesting that “much of this is due to the common history of our peoples.”
“After all, the Ottoman Turks regarded Assyrians as the same millet as the Armenians, and in 1915, we met the same fate,” he said.
The Greek community in Armenia is much smaller than it once was, as many returned to Greece after 1991. According to the 2001 Armenian census, there were 1,176 Greeks in Armenia that year, and the numbers have since stabilized. The village of Yaghdan in the Lori province was founded and is still populated by Greeks. In Yerevan there is a Greek Sunday School where children learn their language and history and immerse themselves in Greek culture. Eduardas Polatsidis, the son of Greek migrants who arrived in Armenia from the Black Sea coast in the early 20th century, has been working actively for greater acknowledgement of the suffering of the Greeks.
“The Greek community in Armenia thus far does not have a monument dedicated to the memory of the Greek Genocide,” Polatsidis said when I met him in Yerevan.
As Turkey looks to build allies in the Middle East and in the broader region, it has also attempted to approach Greeks and Assyrians. The Turkish ambassador’s meeting with Assyrians in Sweden is one such example. These are the actions of a genocide-denialist government seeking to befriend the victim group and prevent any further advocacy on the matter of genocide recognition.
Beyond the moral imperative, Armenians have a political responsibility: We must look to build our own coalition of support for justice. Where better to start than with those groups that were subjected to the same violence, under the same polices, implemented by the same perpetrators—our ancient neighbors, the Greeks and Assyrians.
While the political influence, organization, and strength in advocacy of Assyrian and Greek Diasporan groups has not been substantiated nor tested as our own, much can be achieved from further encouraging, supporting, and collaborating with these groups.
In 2007, 10 years after reaffirming the historical reality of the Armenian Genocide, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) resolved that Greeks and Assyrians were subjected to “qualitatively similar” genocides to that of the Armenians.
The more than 70 legislative bodies and 20 nation-states that have recognized the Armenian Genocide must follow the IAGS’s example in affirming the historical reality of the Greek and Assyrian Genocides. The Armenian Diaspora can and must play its critical role in achieving this objective.
Similarly, the government of Armenia has to do better. The Armenian republic has never denied the Assyrian or Greek Genocides, and members of the Armenian Parliament have often recalled the two genocides in parliamentary addresses. Despite this, there is no definitive record of condemnation of the Assyrian and Greek Genocides.
The appropriate course of action in Armenia should be the announcement of a presidential decree on May 19, affirming the historical reality of the Greek Genocide, condemning this crime, and expressing sympathy for the victims. May 19, 1919 is the date Mustafa Kemal-Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, initiated the second phase of Greek ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Pontian-Greek city of Samsun on the Black Sea. It is the day designated by the parliament of Greece in 1994 as a day of commemoration of the genocide of the Greek Pontians.
A parallel Armenian presidential decree should follow on Aug. 7, the day Assyrians remember the suffering of their people—first during the Assyrian Genocide, and later as subjects to massacre in northern Iraq in 1933.
It is estimated that alongside the 1.5 million Armenians, the Ottoman-era genocides also claimed the lives of 750,000 Assyrians and at least 500,000 Greeks. Having lived side by side for millennia, the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians were once again brought together in genocide. We must now come together in the struggle for its just resolution.