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Commemorating the 1933 Semele massacre against Iraqi Christians

4 August 2015

On 7 August, the Assyrian community commemorates the beginning of a massacre of an estimated 3,000 Christian Assyrians in 1933 in Iraq’s northern town of Semele and nearby villages in the Dohuk and Mosul districts.

Assyrian Christians leaving northern Iraq to settle in north-eastern Syria
Assyrian Christians leaving northern Iraq to settle in north-eastern Syria

Many of the Christian residents of the Mosul plains and northern Iraq at that time had migrated there after they were expelled from modern-day Turkey when the Ottoman Empire issued a fatwa against all non-Muslims in early 1915. Up to 750,000 Assyrians were killed in the Ottoman genocide, know as Seyfo (sword), that lasted 30 years and peaked in 1915; its survivors fled.

Once the Kingdom of Iraq gained independence in 1932, Mar Eshai Shimum XXIII, then leader of the Assyrian Church of the East, requested autonomy for the country’s Assyrian community, also presenting his case before the League of Nations that same year.

Iraqi forces, determined to quell Assyrian demands, launched a campaign of unimaginable violence against the Assyrians beginning on 8 August. Led by Commanding Officer Bakr Sidqi, the army raided over 60 Assyrian villages, systematically killing every male discovered and looting homes and livestock.

Semele was the last place of refuge for those who had fled the villages in terror. But on 11 August, Iraqi soldiers arrived in the town. According to a report by Lieutenant-Colonel R. S. Stafford, the British Administrative Inspector for Mosul, “suddenly, and without any warning, fire was opened by the troops”.

“The soldiers then proceeded methodically to massacre all the men. In some cases machine guns were fired through windows into the crowded rooms. In others the men were dragged out, shot, and their bodies thrown on to the pile of dead. A few men hid among the women, but these too were hunted out.”

“All or practically all the killed were peaceful citizens, who had committed no offence whatever against the Government. They had come into [Semele] to be under the protection of the Iraqi flag which flew over the Police Post. They had no arms and no means of resistance.”

According to Mar Shimun, “girls were raped and made to march naked before Iraqi commanders. Children were run over by military cars. Pregnant women were bayonetted. Children were flung in the air and pierced on to the points of bayonets. Holy books were used for the burning of the massacred.” An estimated 3,000 Assyrians were slaughtered in the massacre.

After the massacre at Semele, Lieutenant-Colonel R. S. Stafford reported that, “a thousand terrified, weeping women and children who had seen all their male relatives killed before their eyes were crowded into the Police Post. In this atmosphere they lived without food and with little water until August 15th.”

But, he said, “this massacre, though the worst which took place, was by no means unique. At Dohuk and the neighbouring villages men, in three cases priests, were taken out of their houses by the army. They were shot in batches.”

The brutal campaign, which lasted until 16 August, forced a third of the Iraqi Assyrian population to flee into north-eastern Syria, where they eventually settled in villages along the Khabur river. In a tragic repetition of events, today’s generation of these Assyrian Christians were again forced out of their homes after Islamic State militants raided the villages in February and March this year.

The significance of the Semele massacre is such that the very concept of “genocide” emerged as a result. Deeply moved by the slaughter of Christians in northern Iraq, lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who was born in 1901 in Eastern Poland to Jewish parents, presented a proposal to the League of Nations in 1933 to criminalise such “acts of barbarism” as seen in the Semele massacre.

Although this failed, in later years he coined the word “genocide” (joining the Greek prefix genos, meaning race, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing) following extensive studies on the Jewish holocaust. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was finally accepted by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948.