Syria’s Armenians are under assault yet again

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - This year the Bedoyan family won’t be celebrating Christmas. This, they say, is a time of mourning.

“For Armenians to stay in Syria means sacrifice. Sacrifice has been made, and more will come,” one relative of Father Joseph Hanna Bedoyan murmurs.

The Catholic priest and his father were slain last month as they were driving to the province of Deir Ezzor where they were to inspect a church being restored. The murder was claimed by ISIS.

Inside their modest family home in the north-east Syrian city of Qamishli, portraits of the father and son now decorate the white, cracked walls. A candle is lit; faces are shut.

"I lost people I loved dearly. Thank God, after the murders another one of my sons emigrated to Australia because he was afraid. He will have a better life there," Ani Goriye, wife and mother of the two victims, tells The National.

She sobs silently looking at the pictures, tears running down her wrinkled cheeks. She says she doesn’t believe ISIS his responsible for the attack and points fingers in every possible direction: the Syrian regime, Kurdish authorities... even her own church.

To add to her grief, paranoia is high in such uncertain times. Foreign powers and local actors all converged towards northern Syria in recent weeks in a deadly chaos.

Kurdish officials claim there was a spike in ISIS attacks since the start of the Turkish offensive and the US partial withdrawal from the region.

On October 9, Turkey launched a military operation code-named “Peace Spring” to expel Kurdish forces - which it sees as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party group – from its border. Thanks to a Russian-brokered deal, Ankara successfully established a 30-kilometre deep, 120km long "safe zone" emptied of the fighters it refers to as “terrorists”.

Tens of thousands of civilians fled their homes and have yet to return in the areas now controlled by Turkish affiliates, including Armenian and other Christian families.

"It’s an Ottoman-like occupation," Top Kurdish official Berivan Khaled, tells The National.

As many as 1.5 million Christians lived in Syria before the war, half of which are believed to have fled the country since. Ten thousand Catholic-Armenians were among them, according to a church official.

A hundred years after the Armenian genocide, a new one is taking place

George Hanna

Some are part of Syria’s indigenous population, most were originally refugees who fled the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century.

Last week, the administration said it does not consider the mass killings of Armenians started in 1915 as a “genocide”, directly contradicting a recent vote by the US Congress - presumably as to not further deteriorate a relationship with Ankara already under serious strain.

Armenia says 1.5 million were killed in an effort to wipe out the ethnic group. Turkey has always denied the events amounted to a genocide.

"A hundred years after the Armenian genocide, a new one is taking place. This time we are not the targets, the Kurds are," George Hanna, brother of the slain priest, tells The National.

Superlatives such as "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" are a recurrent feature in the mouth of those in Syria opposing the modern-day Turkish operation, arguing “history is repeating itself”.

The ruins of Raqqa's Armenian church. Local authorities say they plan to rebuild it. December 20, 2019. Thibault Lefébure for The National.
The ruins of Raqqa's Armenian church. Local authorities say they plan to rebuild it. December 20, 2019. Thibault Lefébure for The National.

In fact, casualties have remained limited, especially among civilians, but President Erdogan’s plan to resettle Syrian refugees inside the areas vacated by families and now under its control has sparked fear of demographic re-engineering.

“I told the Kurds: be careful, the Americans are not going to sacrifice their relationship with Turkey just for your beautiful dark eyes. They should have listened to us. Instead, the population was sacrificed,” one Syrian Armenian church official tells The National.

Before the latest developments of Syria’s protracted crisis, the war had already taken a heavy toll on the Armenian community. That is especially true in Raqqa, the former “capital” of ISIS, which was reclaimed after three years of occupation and a four-month-long, bloody battle.

Their church was levelled to the ground, and only one family remains in the city out of the 230 who used to live there before 2011, already a fraction of the original community.

"In the city of Raqqa, the bulk of Armenians came in the fall of 1915, then in 1916. Special neighbourhoods were created for them there, and actually flourished. At that moment Ottoman authorities didn’t know what to do with them - it was more people than they expected - so they let them settle. But in April, May 1916, they were deported to the Deir Ezzor desert and exterminated,” Historian and sociologist Taner Akcam, a Professor at Clark University and a leading international authority on the Armenian Genocide, tells The National.

“About 10,000 were able to stay in Raqqa by bribing their way out of deportation,” the Turkish-German scholar says.

The Kurdish-run Raqqa Civil Council says plans are in motion to rebuild the Armenian church. An official showed The National the blueprints of the project, but it’s unclear who will come to pray there with only one Armenian family left in the city.

“It’s a message that despite the war, we are still the same: one nation,” the official says.

Syria’s north-east, home to many Armenians, is now a battleground for a myriad of foreign and local forces. In the same day, one can drive past a Russian military convoy, be flown over by US helicopters, wave hello to regime or Kurdish troops, and park the car by the fortifications set up against Turkish affiliates.

The Archbishop of the Armenian church of Qamishli. December 21, 2019. Thibault Lefébure for The National.
The Archbishop of the Armenian church of Qamishli. December 21, 2019. Thibault Lefébure for The National.

All Syrian Armenians interviewed by The National said they favoured a return of the Syrian state in all parts of the country, the only actor able to bring back a much-needed “stability,” they say. Critics argue the regime narrative portraying itself as a protector of minorities is mere propaganda.

“The Kurds, the state, the Turks… In the end, who will rule us is not for us to decide,” Yara Hanna, sister-in-law of the late priest Joseph Hanna Ibrahim, tells The National. “All we want is peace.”

She knows only too well the peril of war and exile. Hanna fled the country in 2015, crossing the border to Turkey then reaching Greece by boat before taking the Balkan road and finally arriving in Germany. She lived there for about two years, then realised she was better off in Syria, and travelled back home.

Today, considering the political instability and having had to bury a father and brother-in-law, she says she would like to walk out of Syria again – “running!” interjects her husband George – but fears she would only help depopulate an already fragile Armenian community.

“We have to stay, otherwise we will go extinct,” she says, her one-year old son sitting on her lap.

“As long as the bells are ringing, we will resist.”

Updated: December 26, 2019 09:21 PM

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