The interview was translated from Turkish to English by Abdulmesih BarAbraham.
Q: As Assyrians and in context of ‘Seyfo’, you have had relations to Armenia for quite some time. Could you tell us about these contacts? What kind of discussions are going on and what are the expected developments? Furthermore, what is the Armenian view?
For the recognition and acceptance of the Assyrian Genocide we have activities and relationships with all European countries and also with the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
As known, in 1915, during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, Genocide took place under the leadership of Union and Progress Party. Not only Armenians, but also Assyrians and Greeks were massacred. Without doubt, the initial targets were the Armenians, where the main objective was to homogenize Turkey. In fact, and as expressed by the headlines of the Hürriyet Newspaper, Turkey was supposed to become “for Turks” only. In addition, the aim was to have a single religion, a single language, a single flag and a single nation. In order to achieve this, all the different ‘weeds’ had to be uprooted. Evidently, in 1915 not only Armenians but also Assyrians, Greeks and Yezidis were massacred. Later on, in 1937, there was the genocide of Dersim.
Therefore, the Republic of Turkey is a state founded on the killings of the Christian minorities. The Christian minorities did not only face physical extermination. The land and property they owned were confiscated, too. From an economic point of view, we can say that some of the wealthy Turkish people’s richness is derived from the land and properties seized from the Christians. Unfortunately, this issue has not been subject of studies. I guess that this is one of the reasons for the denial of the genocide.
As for your question: There is nothing more natural than that the people, victim of genocide, understand each other. Armenians, Greeks, Kurds and other oppressed peoples have shared pain and hence they are in solidarity with one another. In this context, we have relationships with the people and institutions of Armenia as we have with many other countries, too.
During 2007, I was invited to Armenia by the Armenian Genocide Museum for the first time. Beside conference participation, I met with many institutions and personalities. I have travelled to Assyrian villages in Armenia and made useful observations.
One such observation in Armenia was that a certain elite knows well about the Assyrian Genocide, whereas the broader public does not know much about it other than from hearsay. Therefore, we have sent a 48-page brochure documenting and demanding recognition of the Assyrian Genocide and bearing Mechthild Roth’s signature, Vice President of the European Parliament, to the members of Armenian parliament as well as to many other countries. Of course, other publications and documents were shared, too. Thanks to the relationship that has been established, I think the knowledge and awareness regarding the Assyrian Genocide has increased when compared to a couple years ago.
We have discussed various topics with the president of the Armenian Genocide Museum, Mr. Hayk Demoyan and I hope that we can implement some of the ideas in the near future.
Armenia and the Armenian people in general want every state and everyone in the world to recognize the Armenian Genocide. This is a legitimate demand. However, one could raise the following question: Why should Armenian people not understand Assyrian pain and not recognize the Assyrian Genocide? We are spending a lot of efforts in order for Armenia to take this step. Recently 36 international institutions and 22 well-known genocide scholars signed a letter that was send to the President of the Republic of Armenia and other party representatives requesting recognition of the Assyrian Genocide.
In April 2012, an Assyrian Genocide Monument will be inaugurated in Yerevan. I believe that in the near future the Armenian Republic will recognize the Assyrian Genocide. I am certain, this will happen.
Q: I know that Assyrians in fact have some estrangement with the Armenians regarding the 1915 topic. Can you tell us the reasons that caused you to hold back from approaching each other? What is behind trying to establish a dialogue today?
I disagree with you that there is an estrangement between Assyrians and Armenians with regards to the genocide of 1915 or any other topic. We do not have any dissociation.
However, in case of the possibility that an Assyrian cleric or any civil person in Turkey might have had a conversation with someone to cozy up and leave such an impression to please the Turks and the countries authorities, let us be clear: Assyrians have neither love nor respect for such people. To belittle what happened to the Armenians and to make concessions is not a proper behavior for anybody.
Though, I would like to add the following: The fact that some Armenian intellectuals and scholars ignore the Assyrian Genocide along with the missing recognition of the same by Armenia is considered by Assyrians as an important deficit!
A few years ago, it was not easy to talk about the [genocide] topic in Turkey at all. Moreover, like others, Assyrian children were confronted with the Turkification policy, too. [Minority] children at schools were taught one big lie. And they had to yell this lie every morning before entering class in a collective manner : “I am a Turk, honest and hardworking,… my existence shall be dedicated to the Turkish existence”.
But now the Assyrians live in Europe and various other continents. Their children are graduating from universities as politicians, writers and artists. They are getting educated in their national identity and history. With that, they have the power to influence their society. It was ‘yesterday’ that the Assyrians settled in Sweden, though today there are five Assyrian parliament members in the Riksdag. Assyrians have two teams playing in the top soccer league in Sweden. Here I would like to stress that Turkey should derive some important lessons from the development I mentioned. The richness of a society is based on the diversity it captures. However, Turkey wanted to destroy this diversity and wanted to “Turkify” and monopolize everything. By doing so, it has done great harm to the driving force of the society.
The main reason for entering relations with Armenia and many countries is the Assyrian enlightenment that I have touched above, nothing else.
Q: As I learned, you are preparing the commemoration of the events of 1915 in April; could you give us more information on that?
In recent years, we have been organizing the 1915 genocide commemorations in many countries and continents during April. Also during August 7, which marks the Assyrian Martyrs’ Day, there are lots of activities. (On August 7, 1933, three thousand Assyrians were massacred in Iraq’s Simmele. In early years, August 7 was unwittingly focused to the martyrs in Simmele only. But in later years, this date has been utilized for commemorating the events of 1915 as well.)
We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the 1915 genocide. Of course, we have preparations for this, too. We are developing our relationship with universities and other institutions in many countries. Our voices will be heard much more over the next years.
Q: Could you tell us about Seyfo Center? When was it founded and what is your role? What kind of activities does it have? Are you planning any joint activities with the Holocaust Museum in Armenia?
In Assyrian language Seyfo means sword. Mentioning Seyfo, each Assyrian remembers the years 1914-1915, because hundreds of thousands of Assyrians were killed through the sword.
The Assyrian Genocide Research Center (Seyfo Center), was founded in 2004. I am co-founder and its chairman. It has branches in many European countries and branches in the United States. An overwhelming majority of our people participates in its activities and supports Seyfo Center. As chairman of the institution, I am pleased because of the support we receive.
Seyfo Center has multi-faceted activities to develop awareness about the Assyrian Genocide of 1915. It is successfully publishing books, including translations, and producing documentary films in order to reach the people and raise awareness. Seminars and conferences are on the daily activity agenda of Seyfo Center.
Since a couple of years, we have organised or participated in conferences at several universities and parliaments of the United Kingdom, Sweden, Greece and Australia. We have activities with the University of Colombia in the U.S. and we will continue these efforts.
The recognition of the Assyrian Genocide by the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) on December 19, 2007 was a big step (AINA ). We are aware of its importance and therefore want to develop the relationships with genocide experts in the international arena. Those powers who deny the genocide have no chance in this arena, except to ridicule themselves. Genocide experts are well aware of the fact that genocide deniers, be those in Ruanda or Turkey, use the same language and arguments.
Seyfo Center is an organization against racism and in this context, it has good relations with Turks, Kurds and people from other ethnic backgrounds. We don’t understand the genocide as an act where people murder other people. We are condemning the government, the Kurds and other forces who participated in the 1915 genocide. Not each Turk or Kurd is responsible as individual [of course]. However, there is a collective responsibility. The genocide of 1915 was carried out in the name of the Turkish nation and the Islamic religion. Hence, each member of the Turkish and Kurdish people bears responsibility to accept the genocide of 1915.
We had an excellent example of this [recognition] a few years ago. The Kurdish intellectual Boti Berzan participated in a press conference organized by Seyfo Center at the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm. He apologized to the Armenians and Assyrians for the genocide of 1915 and formally returned the land he owns to the real owners, who were the Assyrians and in this case to Seyfo Center (AINA 1-9-2009,2-6-2009). The venerable gesture by Boti Berzan has won the hearts and the friendship of all Assyrians.
Yes, I have relations with the Armenian Genocide Museum and in the future, we will further improve these relations. For the third time and under the motto “Three Genocides, One Strategy”, Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians came together in Greece and discussed the genocide, which has happened to them. This conference will take place in Austria this year and as Seyfo Center, we will participate in that again.
Q: There was no Assyrian initiative with regards of Seyfo until recently, but over the last years, there is a movement in the international arena; what kind of initiatives are planned to bring it to the agenda of the parliaments?
I think I have already replied in detail to this question above. In the coming years, there will be more books published on the Assyrian Genocide and it will receive more academic attention. After Sweden, Armenia, Australia and other countries’ parliaments will recognize the genocide. I’m confident about this.
Q: Until now you have been discussing demands regarding Seyfo within your own community and not in public. Why are you bringing this to the [public] agenda now? Do you expect new experience with Turkey on this matter? What are the demands towards Turkey?
Your assertion is correct that we have carried out our Seyfo related activities mostly within ourselves. Who has done this differently? Before educating others, we committed ourselves, and it was correct to do so. Our current strength and relationships pushed the issue to the international arena and therefore it has become more visible.
Our demand is very clear and obvious. The Republic of Turkey must recognize the genocide of 1915, apologize and fulfill requirements related to the apology. Turkey’s political leaders need to better comprehend the fact that not only one, but many genocides took place in Turkey. The genocide of Dersim is one of those. If Turkey does not confront itself with its own history and leave behind the mentality of the genocide, it will not be possible [for the country] to become a true democracy. We want Turkey to become a civilized and democratic country.
Q: Do you have contacts to Ankara in this context?
We are conducting our activities very openly and very clearly on this issue. We do not have any formal relationship with any organization representing Turkey and there is no need for that.
Q: Over the last year there has been a serious movement within the Assyrian community; they received invitation from Ankara in context of the preparations for the new constitution. Do they stress to benefit from the rights given to minorities at the Lausanne Treaty? How are you following these developments in Turkey and what would you say [about that]?
The world is turning. Everything is changing. Turkey is changing and will change, too. The only constant thing is ‘change’ itself. Before the Turks set foot into Anatolia, Assyrians lived in the region for thousands of years. What happened to the Assyrians in Turkey, happened to the Native Americans of America. All together, ten thousand Assyrians remain in Turkey [today]. With the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, their surnames, village and town names have been changed and Turkified. Many churches were converted into mosques.
For ninety years, anyone living in Turkey was regarded as a ‘Turk’.
If this is considered differently even ninety years later, it needs to be regarded as an important development. I hope that the Assyrian language, culture and national identity will be secured by the constitution and there are no empty promises. What we demand for us, we want for everyone living in Turkey: national rights for Kurds, Laz, Circassians, Armenians, Greeks, Alevis and all other minorities should be guaranteed. Everyone needs peace and freedom and that geography is enough for all of us.
Q: The Assyrian community has a problem of ‘identity’ (Assyrian, Aramaic, Syriac, etc.); how do you plan to achieve a consensus in such a sensitive subject of ‘definition’?
Other nations experienced similar identification problems, too. Greeks, Germans, Turks, Kurds, Italians and Jews faced different designations and definitions at some time. The majority of them overcame the issues with the resolution of their national questions.
The Assyrians took the biggest blow on the way of developing national consciousness and reaching their national rights as they faced the genocide. Their Intellectuals were eliminated, their national institutions destroyed. They were left with a religious identity only. In all the Middle-Eastern countries they lived, they faced relentless oppression and assimilation. Their language and history was banned. Under such circumstances, it is understandable when people sometimes prefer their religious identity while some others depict themselves as Assyrian, Aramaic, Chaldean or Syriac [people]. We founded Mesopotamia’s great civilizations and we have made great services to humanity. We want to do that again.
All of the definitions form our common values and express richness. When our people faced genocide, they were not asked whether they were Assyrians, Arameans, Chaldeans or Syriacs. All were decimated. This is why the genocide topic is able to bring together all our people. The various definitions will be resolved among us along the process.
Assyrian Genocide Research Center