April 24 marked the 105th anniversary of the 1915 Ottoman Empire’s deportation of 200 Armenian intellectuals from the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, an event that is remembered as the start of the Armenian genocide. Fitting reflections for this time come from Sister Hatune Dogan, a Syriac Orthodox Christian nun from Turkey, who has written about how 1915, this “so-called year of the sword,” fits within centuries of Muslim sharia subjugation of Christians.
Born in 1970, Dogan came with her family as refugees to Germany and now heads there a Christian humanitarian aid organization. In 2010, she wrote in German about her life and work in Es Geht ums Überleben: Mein Einsatz für die Christen im Irak (It is about Survival: My Work for the Christians in Iraq). She gave this author a copy during a 2014 presentation in Washington, DC.
Readers of Dogan’s biography would find unsurprising the 2019 book by Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894-1924. These Israeli historians extensively documented how World War I’s infamous Armenian Genocide was part of wider ethnic cleansing campaigns of successive Turkish regimes against Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christian communities. In these three decades, jihadist beliefs played a central role in the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 to 2.5 million Christians in Asia Minor; Christians plummeted from 20 to two percent of Anatolia’s population.
Dogan’s family memories confirm such longstanding historical Christian suffering under Islamic domination. The practice of Turkish society was that a “Muslim may not namely be punished because of a Christian and land in prison,” and “no decade passed without plundering, murders, kidnappings, and rapes,” she wrote. Her community remembered how often in the past sharia restricted non-Muslims, such that Christians could not ride horses and had to wear distinctive clothing, while Christians’ houses could not be higher than those of Muslims.
Dogan’s family had its own share of 1915’s horrors. One marauding Kurdish tribal irregular forced one of her great aunts into a “marriage,” and even called his “wife” a houri after the eternal virgins who supposedly please faithful Muslim men in the afterlife. By contrast, Dogan’s family has remained friendly with one Muslim Turkish family, whose ancestors helped protect her maternal grandmother from a Muslim mob.
From more recent times, Dogan recalled how Christians in Turkey would say goodbye with tears to relatives entering military service and worry about not seeing them again, given frequent military abuse of Christians. Such recruits “have war from the first roll call—and indeed in their own company,” she wrote. In the Turkish military, Christians “are the enemy” and the “victim of harassment, mistreatment, and torture” from fellow Muslim officers and men.
Across decades, Dogan’s father and brothers would tell “always the same” stories of Turkish military service. At the beginning of her father’s military service, 80 men confronted him in the shower, insulted him, and spat upon him as an uncircumcised Christian. They screamed demands that he undergo circumcision and become a “regular Muslim.”
Dogan, meanwhile, remembered that state lesson plans prescribed weekly two hours of Muslim religious instruction, even though her teacher was the local school’s only Muslim. Dogan and her fellow students agreed to boycott the instruction, but they could not avoid speaking Turkish, as their mother tongue of Aramaic was “strictly prohibited.” Not even during breaks could they speak Aramaic.
Only with Dogan’s work with Christian refugees in Iraq did she discover a place where Christians had had a “certain protection”: under the dictator Saddam Hussein. Unlike much of the Muslim-majority Middle East, under Hussein’s Baathist nationalism the “Arab nation—not the Islamic—was the center point of the worldview of this strictly secular dictatorship.” Iraqi Christians accordingly enjoyed certain rights and freedoms denied to their coreligionists in neighboring countries.
Dogan particularly noted that Iraq’s Christians were “disproportionately in high positions,” such as the Chaldean Christian Tariq Aziz, for many years Hussein’s foreign minister. Having attended Christian-led, state-subsidized schools, Christians were “often better educated than Muslims,” wealthier, and “more modern” in outlook. Hussein even preferred in his bodyguard Christians to Shiites, whom his Sunni-minority-based dictatorship deeply distrusted.
Yet even under Hussein, Christians had a precarious position, Dogan noted, and an estimated 100,000 Christians left Iraq in the mid-1990s. After the 1991 Gulf War, the “Islamization waves in the Orient no longer passed by without trace Iraq, which had become internationally isolated and domestically under strong pressure,” she wrote. “‘Allahu Akbar’—‘God is almighty’ [sic] —decorated from now on the flag of Iraqis, anti-Americanism was increasingly Islamist-based,” while Hussein planned to build the world’s largest mosque in Baghdad.
Even worse, Iraqi Christian prospects declined precipitously after the 2003 American-led overthrow of Hussein. Dogan observed that Iraqi “Christians came collectively under suspicion of having sided with the Americans and British.” The American military’s frequent employment of Christians as translators often provoked the accusation that Christians were collaborators and supporters of “American invaders.”
So being Christian in Iraq became a “stigma,” Dogan noted. “Hardly a half year after the American invasion began a systematic persecution of Christians.” Thus “churches were blown apart, priests were murdered in beastly manners, nuns were raped, children were kidnapped, mistreated, and murdered,” while beheadings “quasi publicly executed” some individuals.
Dogan has come to the conclusion that in Iraq and elsewhere, Christian “refugees currently cannot be integrated into Islamic societies” that reject universal human rights. “In some Muslim lands Christian women count as wild game,” she wrote in a time before the Islamic State’s jihadist sex slavery shocked the world, while Christian schools in Jordan raise fears of proselytizing Muslims. In all, for both Shiites and Sunnis, a “democratic form of government following Western examples is directed against Islam and therefore a work of Satan.”
Dogan, as well as Morris and Ze’evi, have provided in their writings a fuller, more proper remembrance of 1915’s murderous events. This year was no isolated incident, but the logical result of a sharia supremacist culture that has dominated the greater Middle East from its seventh-century Muslim conquests until the present. Armenian genocide memorials should never forget that.