US withdrawal and Turkish invasion plans threaten Syrian Christians

by Thomas Schmidinger   Armenian Genocide memorial in Qamishli  


With their withdrawal from Rojava, the United States is not only abandoning nearly 3 million Kurds but also more than one hundred thousand Armenian and Aramaic-speaking Christians, most of whom have found a new home in Syria after the genocide of 1915 committed by the Ottoman Empire. Other than Afrin, the remaining part of Rojava has large Christian communities, who form an essential part of its history and make up a large part of its intellectual and professional population. 

Under the structures of the self-administration, which were set up in 2012, religious freedom is granted. There are even Christian churches of Kurdish converts in the region. After fleeing the Turkish invasion of Afrin in March 2018, these evangelical Christians reopened a Church in Kobanê in September this year. If Turkey continues to invade the remainder of the Kurdish region, these Christians will have to flee again.

The imminent military invasion of Turkey also threatens old Christian communities who found a sanctuary from civil war and jihadist threats in the region. Qamishli was founded after the First World War by Armenians, Assyrians and Jews who preferred to live under the French protectorate rather than under Turkish rule. The city centre of Qamishli is still dominated by Aramaic-speaking Assyrian or Syrian-orthodox Christians. Until the 1970s, the city had more than 60% Christians, and they still are an essential part of the diversity of this multi-ethnic and multi-religious town. 

After the escape of the majority of the large Armenian communities in Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor during the Syrian civil war, Qamishli hosts one of the largest Armenian communities in Syria. Some 8,500 - 2,000 of whom are Armenian Catholics - still live in the city centre.

Besides Qamishli, there are also Armenian communities in Dêrik, Serê Kaniyê (Arabic: Ra‘s al-‘Ain), and al-Hasaka (Kurdish: Hesîce). Armenians run private schools in their towns where they teach their native language, Western Armenian, which differs from Eastern Armenian used in the Republic of Armenia. Both in the elementary schools in Qamishli, Dêrik, Serê Kaniyê and al-Hasaka, and in secondary school in Qamishli, classes are taught in both Arabic and Armenian. 

All of these Armenians are descendants of survivors of the 1915 Genocide. When talking to Armenians in Qamishli and Dêrik, I realised several times how this history is still present. For the Armenians in the region, Turkey is still predominantly seen as the nation who massacred their fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. Although some of the older Armenians in the area still speak Turkish as a second or third language, they fear Turkey as the nation of perpetrators who never even accepted their historical responsibility for the Genocide. Family histories are told in detail. Every church has a memorial for the victims of the Genocide, and every year in every community the 24th of April is celebrated as Armenian Genocide Victims Remembrance Day.

In the south of the Cizîrê canton, around the provincial capital of al-Hasaka (Kurdish: Hesîçe), thousands of Assyrian Christians settled down in the 1920s under the rule of the French protectorate in the wake of the 1915 massacres. In the 1930s, these refugees were joined by survivors of the 1933 killing of Semile, during which 60 of 64 Assyrian villages in northern Iraq were destroyed, and almost 10,000 Assyrians were murdered. Parts of this Assyrian-Nestorian population had primarily lived in the Turkish province of Hakkâri (Kurdish: Colemêrg) until 1915, and the survivors were resettled north of Mosul by the British after World War I, but following the massacre of 1933, they fled further west where they enjoyed the protection of the French. There, they built new villages on the river Khabur, or joined the Assyrian community already living in al-Hasaka. Today, Dêrik is half Christian. Even its Kurdish name presents as a Kurdish alteration of the Aramaic word for ‘monastery’, "Dayr". 

It´s an irony of history that a US-president whose election was strongly based on very convinced Christian voters drops all these Christians and leaves them to the mercy of Turkey and its Islamist allies, who have already committed numerous war crimes against religious minorities in Afrin during the last nine months of occupation. 

Thomas Schmidinger is the author of Rojava which draws on interviews with political leaders of different parties, civil society activists, artists, fighters and religious leaders in order to paint a complex picture of the historical conflict and the contemporary situation in Syria, notably Rojava.