By Sabri Atman
Though the majority of Assyrians are Christians—some agnostic and some atheists as well—there are also a large number of Muslim Assyrians that are proud of their Assyrian identity.
“Crypto-Assyrian” is a term to describe ethnic Assyrians who feel obliged to hide their Assyrian identity from Turkish and the Kurdish society. These people are the descendants of Assyrians in Ottoman Turkey. Their parents were killed and many orphans were taken as slaves and worked for the Kurdish aghas. Assyrian women were taken into harems by Muslim husbands and were converted to Islam, forced into slavery, and raised as Turks or Kurds. Orphans, girls, and women were forcefully taken from their parents and were sold on the markets, just like Yezidi women and girls in Iraq are today in the hands of ISIS.
During my work on the Assyrian Genocide or Seyfo, I came across many stories related to this topic. I was— and still am—contacted by some hidden Assyrians who want to find their relatives. While some of them want to convert to Christianity, some just want to tell their stories.
All of these stories occurred during the persecution of the Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire—some uring the Assyrian Genocide, and some before it.
A few weeks ago, I came across a Facebook page about these Crypto-Assyrians. They were fed up of hiding themselves and wanted to come out and express their identity. I shared the page immediately. The reactions that I received regarding my post were very interesting—it was a new topic for most of us as we haven’t dealt with such questions before as Assyrians.
Many people were shocked and some even started to use vulgar language. They forgot that we, as Assyrians, existed long before we were Christians. Moreover, they forgot that we went through much persecution in Ottoman Turkey and the rest of the Middle East.
Some of the Assyrians who reacted negatively to my post gave themselves the right of having “monopoly of being Assyrians.” According to these individuals, if somebody ever claims that he or she is an Assyrian, they must be “Christian” or reconvert to Christianity.
The Assyrians, who have established the Diyarbakir Assyrian Association, are having difficulties with some of their Muslim neighbors and relatives for asking about their ethnic roots. They number in the thousands. They are proud of their Assyrian identity and do not want to be denied by their ancestry as they seek to understand what they have endured and continue to endure.
Do we understand them? Are we mature enough to understand them? With hope to shine some light of these questions, I contacted the president of the Assyrian Association in Diyarbakir, Eylem Dönen and interviewed her.
I hope this interview will serve as a starting point for discussions about these important matters. The readers should keep in mind, that Assyrians are not the only people who deal with such questions—Armenians, Yezidis, and others in many corners around the world, who also experienced much persecution, deal with such questions.
S.A.: Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
E.D.: My name is Eylem Dönen. I am the president of the Assyrian Culture Association and live in (Omid) Diyarbakir.
S.A.: Where were you born and where did you spend your childhood? Where were your parents and grandparents from? Why do you remember from your childhood when people spoke about their past?
E.D.: I was born and raised in Diyarbakir. My father Mehmet Dönen was born in the village of Şımşım in Lice, Diyarbakir. My mother Emine Dönen was born in Diyarbakir. My grandfather Baki Dönen was born and raised in the village of Orman Kaya. I slightly remember my grandfather talking about the genocide. He was telling us his life story and how he survived the genocide.
S.A.: When was the first time you heard you were Assyrian and from whom? How did you feel about it? Did you face any emotional difficulties? Before you became aware of your Assyrian identity, which nationality and religion did you identify with?
E.D: My family and grandparents taught us about our identity when I was a child. For that reason, I did not face any difficulties with my Assyrian identity. My national identity was always Assyrian. My family and I are Muslim.
S.A.: With whom did you share your national identity? What was the reaction of your family and close relatives?
E.D.: My family and close relatives knew about my national identity and I did not face any problems. However, people from other ethnicities in our geographical region had a confused reaction. Some of them had positive thoughts and some had certain prejudices.
Yes, I am Muslim and I will remain Muslim. I have huge respect to Christianity. However, I believe Islam is the latest religion and I will continue my life this way and remain to believe in my faith.
S.A: How did you get in contact with others like you and how did you come together? What types of difficulties did you face?
E.D.: We always had contact with other families from our village. We had no problem coming together. However, when we met other people from other places, we did not have any problem with our national identity. We did have some challenges with our faith, though.
S.A.: Can you please inform us about the process on how you established your association? What were your aims with this association?
E.D.: Our main purpose for the association was to find Assyrians like us—with Muslim faith—that were “in hiding.” We want to give them a platform so they can speak up and share their thoughts. Moreover, we want to strengthen the Assyrian identity.
S.A.: How many members do you currently have? How many people have you reached in Turkey?
E.D.: We have 100 registered members that belong to families similar to ours. With social media and other tools, we are in contact with 5,000 Assyrians like us in Turkey.
S.A.: What regions are your members from?
E.D.: They are from Diyarbakir and all of eastern Turkey.
S.A.: What do you know about the Seyfo [Assyrian Genocide]?
E.D.: “Seyfo” means sword, which was the weapon used to exterminate the Assyrians in 1915. This is the reason why we call it Seyfo—one of the darkest times in our history. Assyrians lost two thirds of our nation.
S.A.: How did your family, grandparents first become Muslim? Who were these people captured from or were they bought from markets?
E.D.: My grandfather told us that during the Seyfo, he and his sister were taken by a Kurdish family and that was how he survived the genocide. My grandfather was eight years old and his sister was six. They were living with this family; my grandfather was working as a shepherd and his sister did housework. They were forced to convert to Islam while living there.
S.A.: What can you tell us about the background of other members in your association? Who converted them forcefully to Islam? What was the government’s role in this? Did the local authorities do this independently through the government?
E.D.: Most of our members have very similar stories to my grandfather and his sister; there were some who were captured, there were also some that were “bought” in markets. These people were forced to convert to Islam because they were living in Muslim households. The government (at that time) and local authorities implemented the Assyrian Genocide together.
S.A.: What has the reaction been when Crypto-Assyrians reveal their identity?
E.D.: They are not free to express their ethnic background because of the reactions of their surroundings. They are facing real difficulty.
S.A.: What is the population of Assyrians like you in Turkey?
E.D.: With just the work of our association, we reached 100 families in a year. We do not know the exact number, because of the pressures and difficulties we face—not many people express themselves freely. But, we do know the numbers are very high.
S.A.: How did you come to this estimation?
E.D.: We came to this estimation because the members of the association researched our own backgrounds in our villages, cities, and region.
S.A.: What can you share about your members’ current ethnic religious identity? Do they want to describe themselves as Muslims, Christians, or non-believers?
E.D.: Our work does not contain anything about religious choice. There are some who are Muslim, some Christians, and also some that are non-believers. The main goal of our association is to find the Assyrians who are hiding themselves.
S.A.: What were the reactions of your family when you established your association and your identity was revealed? How do you interpret these reactions?
E.D.: I wish I could say the reactions were good. Unfortunately, some of my family forgot that they belonged to the same ethnic group. If you start to analyze the Seyfo period, converting to Islam was the only option of survival. I hope Assyrians will follow our activities and support us with their knowledge and not focus on our choice of religion.
S.A.: What was the reaction of the Kurds, Turks, and other Muslims groups towards you when you started to establish your association? How do you interpret these reactions?
E.D.: The circumstances are very difficult for Assyrians in this region. However, if we do not deny ourselves, the other Muslims and other ethnicities will recognize us in the future. This is the aim of our organization.
S.A.: How do you interpret and feel about how the Assyrians in Iraq, Syria, and other Middle East countries face?
E.D.: Throughout history, Assyrians have always faced violence and war with other nations because of their identity. As Assyrians, we have existed in Mesopotamia before written history and we still exist. However, many have tried to exterminate us with multiple acts of genocide. I am very confident that we will struggle and never give up for our survival.
S.A.: Do you need permission from anybody to be identified as an Assyrian?
E.D.: No. It is very clear where we grew up. It is very clear who our ancestors were. It is very clear who my grandfather and his sister were. Therefore, we do not need any permission from anyone to call ourselves Assyrian.
I hope people understand that religion is a personal choice. Just as I respect people that belong to Christianity or other faiths, I expect from those to respect my faith as well.
S.A.: What message do you have for diasporan Assyrians spread across the world?
E.D.: We are not able to decide the past but we should also not forget the past. It is time that we put our differences aside and unite. I will stress again, this is the time to unite as Assyrians and to make the world hear us.