MOUNT VERNON, Ohio — Oxford Dictionary defined genocide as “the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group.” During World War I, the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey) murdered more than 300,000 Assyrians as a form of ethnic cleansing. However, the international community at large has not acknowledged the history of persecution of the Assyrian people as a genocide. To acknowledge and raise awareness of the Assyrian genocide, Representative Josh Harder [D-CA-10] reintroduced H. Res. 537 in the House on July 22, 2021.
Who Are the Assyrians?
The Assyrians are an ethnic and religious minority who originate from the ancient Assyrian Empire in the Middle East. The traditional Assyrian homeland consists of parts of current-day Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. However, many Assyrians, escaping persecution due to their Christian faith, have fled to surrounding countries.
Because the Assyrians were a religious minority in the Muslim-dominated Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman sultan targeted them as “enemies of Islam” during World War I. The government aimed to exterminate all groups who were not exclusively Turkish and Islamic, such as the Christian Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks.
The Ottomans destroyed Christian churches and prohibited Assyrians from holding religious services. Even more, they removed Assyrians from their sacred lands and destroyed their crops and supplies. Hundreds of thousands of Assyrians were subject to rape and murder by the Ottomans, while countless others died of starvation and disease.
Remembering the Assyrian Genocide
Only one-third of Assyrians survived the brutal genocide and they were still heavily targeted by the government through the 1920s. Turkish officials have admitted that the Ottoman Empire murdered Assyrian Christians during World War I. However, the international community at large has not recognized that the widespread persecution of Assyrians constitutes genocide.
The Turkish government specifically targeted Assyrians because of their religion. In the Turkish regions of Mardin and Hakkari, 95% of Assyrians fled due to persecution and forced evictions. In the 1990s, in Turkey, Assyrians faced forced conversion to Christianity, rape and abduction. Assyrians currently do not have the right to set up schools in their own language of Syriac, they do not possess definitive rights to education and lack government representation as well.
H. Res. 537
H.Res. 537 was initially introduced into the House in August 2019, but Rep. Harder re-introduced this resolution on July 22, 2021. H.Res 537 aims to acknowledge the plight of the Assyrians by recognizing their history of persecution and oppression. If passed, H.Res 537 will do the following:
- Recognize that the killing of Assyrians during World War I constitutes genocide.
- Establish the United States’ support for Assyrians within the U.S. and around the world.
- Call upon Turkey to acknowledge the Assyrian genocide and show accountability.
- Increase public education about Assyrian culture and history.
- “Prevent both future genocides and further harm” to Assyrians.
Assyrian Aid Society (AAS)
Founded in 1991, the nonprofit Assyrian Aid Society (AAS) of America works to help Assyrians all over the world while fighting for and upholding Assyrian human rights. The AAS has helped Assyrians establish their own school systems with Assyrian teachers and learning tools. Due to the efforts of AAS, today, in Northern Iraq, there are more than “2,600 Assyrian students in 27 Assyrian schools.”
The work of the AAS goes further than just education. The AAS also established “brick-and-mortar health facilities” in five Iraqi towns to provide Assyrians with affordable healthcare. The AAS has also strengthened infrastructure in Assyrian communities by improving irrigation systems and rehabilitating community centers. Further, the AAS works toward preserving and promoting Assyrian culture and heritage by showcasing Assyrian poetry, dance and art.
H.Res. 537 is “a critical step on the journey toward justice and accountability,” recognizing the suffering of the Assyrian people in order to protect Assyrians and prevent future genocides against minority groups.
– Abby Adu