Clinging on in the wake of a genocide

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk cracked down on Turkey’s cultural and religious complexity (Getty)

The Heirs of Patriarch Shaker
by Augin Kurt Haninke, Nineveh press, 362pp, £18

The Heirs of Patriarch Shaker is a history of the Syrian Orthodox Church – an autocephalous miaphysite body with a mostly ethnically Assyrian congregation – during the 20th century, the most trying period in its two millennia of existence. Augin Kurt Haninke is an Assyrian journalist and member of the Syrian Orthodox Church. His purpose in writing Heirs – the culmination of a journalistic career spent engaging with themes of ecclesiastical and political power – is to unearth the story of the Syrian Orthodox patriarchy and clergy’s navigation of the politics of the 20th century.

Haninke’s thesis is clear: Patriarch Elias Shaker (1867-1932) established a legacy of enthusiastic subservience to rulers hostile to the interests, dignity and identity of the Assyrian people.

In the wake of the First World War and the Assyrian genocide (1914-23), the old Ottoman system – founded on allocations of power granted to representatives of religious communities – was giving way to a centralised Turkish Republic.

The nationalism of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – the founder and ideological guiding light of that Republic – required the eradication of cultural and religious complexity. In a speech in May 1924, Atatürk declared that “Orthodox and Armenian churches and Jewish synagogues which are based in Turkey should have been abolished with the Caliphate”. By 1928, all the Assyrian schools in Turkey, which were usually administered by churches, had been closed.

Speaking Assyrian Aramaic in public became prosecutable. Turkish began to replace Syriac as the language of Syrian Orthodox liturgy. The “episcopal staff” wielded by clergy in public was devolved to “an ordinary stick”.

In response, Shaker publicly renounced all desire for minority rights, declaring that his Assyrian congregation were “Turks” and “did not seek other than the Turkish rule”. Haninke takes this as perfidy: “not a matter of cooperation… rather, total subservience”. Although Haninke is unbending in his negative stance towards their conduct, he makes clear not only the magnitude of the obstacles the Syrian Orthodox clergy were forced to confront, but also the range of appeals they explored.

In the midst of his public celebration of Atatürk and the Turkish state, Shaker was privately launching overtures to Western powers involved in re-shaping the region for intervention in favour of his congregation. His reminder in a 1921 letter that Assyrians “were the first to accept Christianity and [have] rendered innumerable services to the cause of our faith” did nothing to move the British, whose imperial reach was not only in decline but had never been founded on Christian solidarity. It was the only card in Shaker’s hand: his people, decimated by genocide, were of no strategic use to any European power.

After criticism from his congregation for opting to visit the Turkish governor prior to his British counterpart, Shaker replied: “The English are guests, whereas the Turks are here to stay.” The assertion was inarguable. Shaker’s posture of genuflection was inherited by his successors once they assumed the Patriarchal office.


The intellectually gifted Bishop Afrem Barsoum (1887-1957) became Patriarch Shaker’s emissary. At the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, he bore witness, with pain and anger, to the indifference of the international community to the demands of his “ancient Assyrian nation”. His commitment to the Assyrian cause during this period was sufficiently emphatic to join in an explicit call for an independent Assyrian state for Assyrians of all denominations.

After Barsoum succeeded Shaker as Patriarch in 1933, he switched the focus of his dedication to an equally emphatic anti-Assyrianism. Barsoum strove to minimise interactions by his clergy and congregation with Assyrians from the Church of the East, and issued a decree prohibiting usage of the Assyrian name altogether.

The decisive event in that extreme reversal was the Simele Massacre of 1933, which saw Assyrians under the jurisdiction of the Church of the East and its subsequently exiled leader, Mar Shimun XXIII, targeted for slaughter by the newly formed Iraqi army. Simele announced the establishment of Iraqi state authority, and in doing so put an end to Assyrian aspirations for even a degree of autonomy. Following the failure of Assyrians to cohere their people across sectarian boundaries, each church was now left to carve out its own separate place under the dominion of new countries and their rulers.

Heirs unveils the central role that sectarianism fostered by political oppression played in fragmenting the Assyrian identity. Through a forensic chronicling of documents, speeches and texts that support his central premise, Haninke demonstrates that it is precisely the continuity and veracity of the Assyrian name that led to the Syrian Orthodox Church needing to suppress it. Since it conveys the common ethnic heritage of Assyrians across ecclesiastical boundaries and roots them in the land they have inhabited immemorially, the consequences of asserting the Assyrian identity in the face of state control and manipulation – especially when premised on ideologies of racial and/or religious chauvinism – have proved too onerous. This condition has led to an entrenchment of ecclesiastical partition among Assyrian communities that persists today.

A richly sourced contribution to a likely perennial dialectic, Heirs makes a strong case that both the ecclesiastical and lay spheres of the Assyrian nation require a separation of their mandates.

Mardean Issac is a British-Assyrian novelist, journalist, researcher and editor