Abdulmesih BarAbraham, MSc.
The French Senate passed a resolution on Wednesday, February 8th, calling on the government to recognize the genocide of the Assyrian-Chaldeans of 1915–18 and to make the day of April 24 a joint day of commemoration for the Armenian and Assyrian-Chaldean genocides. After the discussion, the resolution was adopted by 300 votes to two.
In the shadow of WWI, the Assyro-Chaldeans (known also Syriac Christians), living in the southeastern region of the Ottoman Empire, too were deported, expelled, and massacred by the Ottoman Empire, in the same manner as the Armenians. France recognizes the genocide of the latter since the law of January 29, 2001.
The proposal for the resolution under the title ‘On the recognition of the genocide of the Assyro-Chaldeans of 1915-1918,’ was tabled by Senator Valérie Boyer (Member of the Republicans – LR) and co-singed by LR Group leaders Bruno Retailleau and Hervé Marseille. It gained immediate support from more than 70 senators when it was recorded in the Senate on January 6, 2023.
The five-page explanatory section of the resolution cites Professor Joseph Jacoub as an expert explaining that this “genocide and looting of land and property was accompanied by severe attacks on the cultural heritage: Historical monuments were destroyed and left abandoned, churches desecrated and schools demolished. Libraries of rare books and valuable manuscripts were squandered and destroyed, such as those of the Chaldean diocese of Seert or the Assyrian patriarchal seat in Kotchanes, a small village in Hakkari now abandoned, or the monasteries of the Syriac Churches in the Tur Abdin region.”
I had the opportunity to talk o Professor Yacoub right after the resolution was passed by the French Senate. He was not only present among the Assyrian personalities and representatives of various institutions following the historic Senate session but also played a decisive role in the process of this resolution, In this interview, he speaks about the importance of this decision and the process that led to the decision.
Professor Joseph Yacoub is an honorary professor of political science from the Catholic University of Lyon and was the first holder of UNESCO’s Chair of „Memory, Cultures and Interculturality,“ expert on minority issues, human rights, and Eastern Christianity. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the Assyro-Chaldeans and Oriental Christians. His most recent book (co-written with his wife Claire Yacoub) is Martyr’s par amour en Perse. Mgr Sontag et ses trois compagnons [Martyrs for Love in Persia. Bishop Sontag and his three Companions], Ed. Salvator, June 2022, Paris.
Joseph Yacoub is born in Hassake, Syria. His parents, originally from Iranian Azerbaijan (Salamas district), suffered during the Turkish genocide of Assyrians during World War I, taking refuge in Georgia before settling in Syria in 1921.
The interview was conducted in French and translated.
Abdulmesih BarAbraham (AB): Professor Yacoub, thank you for your readiness for this interview. Please allow me first to congratulate the Assyrians in France and, in particular, you as a scholar and expert, for pushing for the recent recognition of the Assyro-Chaldean Genocide by the French Senate, which was accepted by an impressive majority. It seems this was the first time in France that the question of the genocide of the Assyrian-Chaldeans has been submitted to the Senate, followed by a vote.
Professor Joseph Yacoub (JY): First of all, thank you very much dear friend Abdulmesih.
Wednesday, February 8, 2023, is not an ordinary day. We are facing history. The motion for a resolution to recognize the Assyro-Chaldean Genocide of 1915-1918 was examined in a public session by the French Senate and adopted by an overwhelming majority of votes casted: 300 for and 2 against!
We owe this to the initiative of these noble children of France: Senator Valérie Boyer and Senator Bruno Retailleau, whose perseverance and tenacity have paid off. We salute in the same vein the continuous work accomplished by our dear and faithful friend François Pupponi, former MP of Val d’Oise and former mayor of Sarcelles. We express our deepest thanks and gratitude to these three pioneers.
How to explain this positive vote of the senators and how to analyze it?
The current dramatic news related to the Eastern Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey undoubtedly contributed to this. In this context, the situation of the Assyro-Chaldeans, a community that suffered persecution, migration, and dispersion, has led us to re-visit history. In doing so, parallels were drawn between the persecutions by the Islamic State (IS, Daech) and the genocidal and ethnocidal tragedy committed by the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1918.
This explains why this tragedy has gradually entered people‘s consciousness, and French politicians have seized upon it to place it in the public debate, since 2013, hoping to bring it to a successful conclusion.
(AB): Indeed, the decision marks a historic event. Reading the explanatory section of the passed resolution, you are particularly cited there. This speaks for your engagement in the background in the preparation of this resolution. Could you elaborate on this?
(JY): First of all, I thank you, my dear Abdulmesih, for your trust.
It is the result of a long work of research and memory, which today finds a favorable echo.
Let’s start at the beginning. In my opinion, there can be no recognition without prior knowledge, knowledge being the mother of all battles, then comes communication. This work focused on our people, small in size, began in the 1980s. This renewal has two components: intellectual and political.
At the intellectual level, this meant serious academic research, which consisted of consulting unpublished rare documents and archives of various Western countries, to which must be added literature in Aramaic-Syriac and Arabic, written by eyewitnesses. It was then necessary to classify them in a synthetic way and to analyze them in the light of the international norms adopted on genocide, thinking in particular of the work of the lawyer Raphaël Lemkin. This work made it possible to break the silence surrounding the Assyrian question by giving it a solid basis and a foundation that validates it. It now enjoys a scientific status. This has resulted in publications in the form of books, studies in periodicals and numerous press articles and interviews. Since then, symposia and conferences have followed one another, with echoes in the media.
At the political level, the research work was accompanied by fieldwork aimed at public authorities (local, departmental and regional elected officials and government authorities) and the media. Here, we must mention the tireless work undertaken by the Assyro-Chaldean community, particularly in the Val d’Oise Department, which, having fled Turkey from 1980 onwards, had kept the memories of the suffering and calamities endured by their people in 1915.
The role of the associations is important to note. Active for 35 years, the interlocutor of the public authorities, the two oldest associations, the Association des Assyro-Chaldéens de France (AACF) and Union des Assyro-Chaldéens de France (UACF), must be mentioned for their activities of sensitization on the question, as well as the role of the Assyrian diaspora in the world (Germany, Sweden, the United States…), which drives a growing fight on this subject, the motto being: Not to forget! In this context, I must also mention the work done by people like yourself, dear Abdulmesih.
Thus, gradually, a broad consensus has emerged to position the issue in the public debate.
(AB): Thank you Malfono. Following your writings and published book over the last years, they appeared in very prestigious publications. Key themes are history, culture, religion, and the genocide of Assyro-Chaldeans. Just about two weeks in the run-up for the decision of the French Senate, an important article of yours was published in the internationally renowned Le Figaro under the title “The official recognition of the Assyrian-Chaldean genocide is a duty of memory.“ In it, you appeal to the long French tradition of solidarity with Oriental Christians. What historical circumstances do you base that solidarity on?
(JY): Indeed, to grasp the significance of this act of recognition, we must go back in time in order to discover that France has always shown solidarity with the oppressed minorities of the Middle East and has shown particular benevolence towards the Assyro-Chaldeans.
Here, the past is remembered in our memory. With respect to the genocidal and ethnocidal tragedy of 1915-1918, France had taken a particular interest. Political and religious circles, intellectuals, and the media had denounced these massacres. Let us recall that between 1915 and 1925, the Assyro-Chaldean question was an international topic, widely debated, even if the memory of their tragedy was somewhat obliterated between 1925 and 1970, to reappear from 1980 on.
Author of numerous works and a canon of Beauvais, Eugène Griselle (1861-1923), was an active advocate of the cause of the Assyro-Chaldeans in 1917 through his publications and his actions. Denys Cochin (1851-1922), MP of Paris, minister, writer, and member of the French Academy, published an article in Le Figaro, on July 13, 1919, entitled “Pour L’Arménie” (For Armenia), in which we read: “A new massacre of Christians is imminent. The rest of Urmia’s women and children are in danger. The Nestorian and Armenian people ask for help immediately. Any delay may be fatal.” Further, he added: “Turkish fury did not distinguish between the Greek Orthodox, the Catholics, the Nestorians, the Chaldeans, or even the Yezidis, who are neither Christians nor Muslims and preserve, it is said, sacred books of fabulous antiquity, and the worship of the gods of Nineveh and Babylon.“
Men of letters have also been noted for their defense of the Assyro-Chaldeans, such as Frédéric Masson (1847-1923), perpetual secretary of the French Academy.
It should also be remembered that Frenchmen fell with the Assyrians in June-July 1918 on the Turkish-Persian front, in Urmia and Khosrava. We think in particular of Mgr. Jacques-Emile Sontag, son of Alsace, and Mathurin L’Hotellier, son of Brittany, along with two Assyrian martyrs: François Miraziz and Nathanaël Dinkha.
That being said, France’s relationship with the Eastern Christians and the Assyro-Chaldeans date from before the tragedy of 1915, connections having been woven over the centuries. James (Yacoub)of Assyria in Tarentaise and Abraham of the Euphrates in Auvergne already mark the presence of Mesopotamia in Gaul in the 5th century. The historian Gregory of Tours in the 6th century (540-594) evokes these Orientals present in France who welcomed the Merovingian king Gontran in Orleans. Moreover, these Orientals spoke Aramaic, the language of Christ.
The nineteenth century inaugurates a crucial period. Through its works, France contributed to resurrecting a people and its civilization, namely Nineveh and Babylon, long disappeared under the rubble. Thus, the funerary slab that enclosed it was lifted, to borrow this beautiful metaphor from Doctor Paul Caujole, head of the French Ambulance in Urmia. A world that we thought had become forever mute, collapsed, and lifeless is now coming back to life.
In this respect, the role of the French consuls in Mosul, in particular Paul-Emile Botta and Victor Place, was decisive. As early as 1847, archaeological pieces arrived by the river to Le Havre to be placed in the Louvre Museum.
(AB): You just cited the article on the front page of the Le Figaro from July 13, 1919, in which the French readers were informed that “a new massacre of Christians is imminent.” The rest of the women and children of Urmia are in danger. The Nestorian and Armenian people ask for help immediately. Any delay may be fatal …”Turkish fury did not distinguish between the Orthodox Greeks, the Catholics, the Nestorians, the Chaldeans, or even the Yezidis….” Can we say that at the end of World War I, the French authorities and the public were aware of the deportations and massacres that took place in East Anatolia and along the border of Persia?
(JY): Yes, that is absolutely correct. Studying the French documents of the time and by scrutinizing the accounts and testimonies, we can see that the orders came from above, conceived by the Ottoman central power, the overall organization was methodically planned, the acts premeditated, and the execution systematic. The Dominican Hyacinthe Simon, who witnessed the massacres in Mardin, wrote in 1919: “The spring was not in our mountains, but in the capital; and I will deny the existence of the sun rather than the truth of this axiom: „The Young Turks of Constantinople have massacred the Christians of Turkey.“
Speaking of responsibilities, another Dominican, Jacques Rhétoré (1841-1921), who was also present in Mardin, challenged the Turkish authorities for their crimes in these terms: “These ministers of Constantinople who decreed the massacres, and these high officials who accepted the mission carrying them out.“
Even the daily American press reported. The New York Times for instance published on January 13, 1915, an article entitled: Christians in great peril, reporting on the precarious situation of the Christians of Turkey. The subtitle pointed to the clear ideological intentions of the government and its desire to homogenize the country by purifying it. Talaat Bey declared, the newspaper wrote, “that there is room only for Turks in Turkey”.
As for the massacres of Christians in Persia, conducted on the orders of the Turks, we can quote the American Presbyterian missionary Dr. William A. Shedd, who clearly blames Turkey during its occupation of the Urmia region from early January until May 20, 1915: “The Turks recruited large Kurdish forces from the region of Sujbulak and from the eastern districts of Turkey; with minor forces from Urmia and Salamas they assembled against Khoi and came to join the Turkish forces in Van under the leadership of Djevdet Bey. (…) During the months of Turkish occupation, there was never a moment of real security for the Christians. (…) During this period, the Turks were guilty not only of the actual failure to protect the Christians but also of the direct massacres committed under their orders.“
It was the same in 1918 on the Turkish-Persian front, where French diplomacy was very active.
(AB): Could you briefly remark on the position of France with regard to the demands of the Assyro-Chaldean delegations, consisting of civil and religious leaders from all denominations, during the post-war peace conference held in Paris in 1919-20? Was France attentive to their demands?
(JY): Yes, at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, many Assyro-Chaldean delegates, both civil and religious, presented themselves, demanding autonomy for their homeland. One of the texts presented, we found it at the Municipal Library of Lyon, as a document of President Edouard Herriot.
(AB): Seems, France had very extensive knowledge of and interaction with the Assyro-Chaldeans and their Churches, which certainly served as a historical reference for the present Senators and facilitated their decision. But, what were the key arguments of the resolution that at the end of the day convinced the overwhelming majority of the Senators?
(JY): In my opinion, it was the discovery of the genocide of 1915-1918, along with that of the Armenians, that was the driving force.
(AB): In fact, a Le Figaro article cites Senator Pierre Ouzoulias as clearly saying that Assyro-Chaldeans were co-victims of the Armenian Genocide, but their genocide needs to be recognized on its own. In addition, Senator Valérie Boyer was cited, talking about France‘s role as a protective power towards the Christians in the Ottoman Empire and a history that goes back to the capitulation in the 16th century. Could you explain this in more detail?
(JY): Indeed, the 16th century saw the beginning of the era of Capitulations with the Ottoman Empire, by King François I and Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. Since then, agreements have been concluded that allowed France, through its diplomatic and cultural representatives, to play an important role in the East, particularly in the field of education, until today.
France has also established since the 16th century, missions in Persia, where Assyrians have lived for more than 2000 years.
(AB): How did the French press comment on this recognition and the Senate’s decision?
(JY): The event was widely and positively reported by the French media. I will mention in particular the daily newspaper Le Figaro. The journalist Jean Chichizola, deputy editor-in-chief, devoted two articles to the event, one before the vote, the other after the vote, whose titles and dates are as follows: “Towards a recognition of the genocide of the Assyro-Chaldeans” (February 6) and “The Senate recognizes the Assyro-Chaldean Genocide” (February 10)
(AB): The resolution calls on the government to recognize the genocide of the Assyro-Chaldeans of 1915–18 and to make April 24 a joint day of commemoration for the Armenian and Assyro-Chaldean genocides. What are the chances that the French government accepts this call? The reason I raise the question is that the German government, up to now did not act on the Genocide Resolution passed by the Bundestag in 2016.
(JY): At the outset, what is important to note is that the resolution adopted by the Senate recognizes the Assyro-Chaldean people as a distinct people, as well as its tragedy. In other words, the Senate text goes beyond commemoration, calling for the inclusion of this genocide as such. By emphasizing it as non-collateral to other massacres, that is to say, as singular, which cannot be confused with others. However, if we look at the texts recognizing the Armenian Genocide, adopted by the US House of Representatives and the German Bundestag, we see that they recognize, indirectly if I may say so, the Assyrian Genocide (under different names), which nevertheless remains confined to the explanatory memoranda, without going further. Hence the importance of direct recognition, as the French Senate is doing today, is very important.
It was, therefore, important to make the Assyrian-Chaldean Genocide a separate theme, to do justice to it and endow them with the status as distinct people, with their own uniqueness, added to that of our Armenian brothers.
For years, personalities have been fighting for the recognition of the Assyro-Chaldean genocide, in the name of truth and to honor the memory of the victims. Members of Parliament are now working to have a text tabled in the National Assembly. Steps are underway.
We hope that the French government will give a favorable response to this resolution.
With this resolution, a new page is opened that marks the passage of the Assyro-Chaldeans from a people classified on the margins of history to a people now included in history.
(AB): Excellent and worthy finish. Dear Professor Yacoub, thank you very much for this inform