On “National Sanctity”: A Letter from Abraham K. Yousuf to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, Mar Ignatius Elias III, in 1921.

Max J. Joseph
9 min readJan 29, 2018
Appearing in a edition of “Nineveh” published by the Assyrian Progressive Alliance, 1927

This is a letter written in 1921 by a distinguished Assyrian named Abraham K. Yousuf to the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Mar Ignatius Elias III, and republished in the publication Nineveh in 1927. Within it lies the plea of a man looking for leadership and healing among our fragmented people. We had just experienced a genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks and Kurds and the disinterest and dismissal by Western powers at the Paris Peace Conference he attended in 1919 and the Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne in 1920 and 1922 respectively.

Yousuf’s letter addresses the Patriarch of Assyrians, Mar Ignatius Elias III of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and outlines five priorities to the Patriarch, as well as requesting personal endorsement from him to deliver them among our people. Yousuf’s letter is important because it is an expression of both a desire for self-sufficiency, but also an appeal for foreign intervention — unpacking what these things meant then and what they mean now is the focus of this piece.

National Consciousness

One can see, even this early on, that Assyrians recognized the urgent need to rally internally and build our own capacities as a nation. We needed to both establish ourselves in Western territories after our flight, but also recover whatever we could after a period of great loss — so great that no detailed, forensic accounts had been compiled and made accessible to Yousuf and his contemporaries at the time. Before that, we endured a period in the wilderness of the neglected South-Eastern Ottoman territories where we were subjected to periodic massacres by murderous Kurdish Emirs such as Bedr Khan Beg in the 19th Century.

Yousuf was writing with the bitter disappointment of Assyrian demands not being met or even heard after Seyfo and was grappling with questions we are still struggling with today. The dual desire to internalize and promote self-sufficiency and self-determination among Assyrians was intermingled with an instinct to appeal to foreigners from distant lands for aid — namely, lands which were perceived to be “Christian lands”. Yousuf writes:

“Assyrians have not yet learned the meaning of national sanctity.”

And continues:

“It is evident that we cannot accomplish these things without American and English sympathizers.”

“National Sanctity” — a phrase one can tie into The Assyrian Question as Self-Determination (AQSD) — is something I understand to mean the absence of compromise when it comes to asserting our identity and protecting our national interests. It is the nation as inviolable, unbroken and sacred. I tie it into AQSD because without even a will for self-determination or self-governance, our fate as Assyrians will never be in our own hands. The goal should always be to maximize self-governance; that is the essence of freedom. But before we can have a material autonomy of land, we need to develop an autonomy of mind.

Here we approach a familiar sentiment which continues to ripple the waters of our modern history: Yousuf writes that we cannot achieve any of the things we need to achieve without American or English sympathy. Contextually, the failures of negotiating this sympathy and assistance and its consequences was too fresh to be appreciated by Yousuf and his peers. With one hundred years of trying and reflection however, we can see a familiar pattern. Asking without simultaneously building our own power and capacities is begging, and any attempt to rise above this begging is mostly viewed as insolence by our alleged sympathizers. This is because we have rehearsed this endlessly and mostly forgot the starting point, or the anchor — this “national sanctity” — which should form a pillar at the center of all of our actions.

Assyrians in Worcester, Massachusetts celebrating July 4, year 1922 and holding the old Assyrian flag. Captain Dr. Abraham K. Yousef is wearing military attire and is standing with other Assyrian migrants from Mardin, Harput and Diyarbakir.

Coming back to the letter, Yousuf prioritized five weaknesses and needs that I will underscore:

  1. A press.
  2. “Workers” (or Assyrians working for our nation) regardless of their sect.
  3. A lobby.
  4. “Harmony” — note: a concept with subtle but important differences to the opium of “unity”.
  5. Self-help through charity, intra-communal support.

Everyone knows how important (1) is, and we did indeed develop several publications which attempted to fulfill this hugely important need. However, nearly all of them have vanished and the ones that exist today do not have a) the resources (both material and technical) to be run effectively, b) the ambition and commitment to secure and spend these resources, or c) no concept of integrity (being treacherous or instruments of our oppressors). Yousuf described a press as something we would have “soon” in 1927, yet we are in 2018 and still persist with small media operations which exist in isolation without large followings.

What Yousuf lists in (2) and (4) are inseparable: Assyrians recognized the need for reconciliation a long time ago among our Churches, and by extension, the flocks those Churches command. For many years, Assyrians knew that if we were to arrive physically to a place where we could prosper, we had to arrive mentally there and work with a spirit of love and joint purpose. He notably described this as “harmony” and not “unity” — for me, pointing to a positive togetherness built on principles and purpose, not a negative, “at all costs” coming together where some people are heckled for not accommodating the goals and objectives of traitors. Having a plurality of voices is fine, but those who defile the sanctity of our nation should never be accommodated. Other nations don’t — that’s why they have harshest penalties written into law for crimes of treason — so why should we?

(5) is fundamental to any progress we can make as a nation, both in building factories of robust knowledge production and sharing, but also care and tenderness with each other. Self-governance means behaving like a nation and looking after the most vulnerable. Underpinning this, we have aid organisations currently operating with this principle. We need these organisations to coordinate and expand their efforts and we need to build our capacity in the homeland and in diaspora to undertake ambitious projects.

Now with (3), we have a slight departure from everything above. This departure was being explored at the time fruitlessly and with increasing frustration by everyone from Assyrian Patriarchs and military types to academics and visionaries. As Mardean Isaac recently reflected on Joseph Yacoub’s book, Year of the Sword:

Soon after their emergence as a national political entity in the modern sense, Assyrians sought to overcome the circumscribing hostility of their neighbors through outreach to the West. They were met with the reality that whatever sense of geographically expansive Christendom still existed in Europe was rapidly dwindling, and would disappear forever with World War I. One of the most telling individual lines in Year of the Sword speaks of Assyrian authors writing in their native Assyrian Aramaic: “Every author, without exception, expresses a sense of shock that Germany and Austria, two Christian countries, could have found themselves on the same side as Turkey during the war.”

A hope for Christian solidarity from the West — which in the 19th century formed the basis of external Assyrian political and institutional engagement — shaded into a prayer-like approach to the international community. From the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to the present day, Assyrians have been entrapped within systems of appeal and recourse to western powers, fuelled by a deep and tragic belief that the moral legitimacy of the Assyrian cause will finally be rewarded.

This feeble “prayer-like approach” manifests in nearly all of our political engagement today — the results of which have produced incredibly little in way of benefit for our people. In fact, without our own leverage and capability seen with the founding of the Nineveh Plain Protection Units for example, these avenues are wide open to being exploited by groups such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — a group able to leverage their own direct relationships with Westerners to undermine the formation of ours — that is the rotten fruit which falls from the trees we pray to.

Lobbying and its Discontents

Yousuf attended the Paris Peace Conference along with Metropolitan and Bishop of Syria, Aphrem Barsoum, pictured below.

After the passing of Mar Ignatius Elias III in 1932, Aphrem Barsoum succeeded him and became known as Mar Ignatius Aphrem I Barsoum. Before this ascension, he submitted a document at the Paris Peace Conference which he attended:

The man who later became Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church writes that he is “laying before the conference the sufferings and the wishes of our ancient Assyrian nation — ”

He asks for recognition of crimes; a harsh treatment of Turkey —including stripping it of territory it had washed with the blood of its Christian populations; a stern approach in dealing with the Kurds (protesting a “Kurdish authority”) after their murderous collaboration with the Turks; and compensation and assurances regarding both our national and religious future.

The conference concluded without addressing any of our issues and demands, with some Assyrian delegates even barred from attending to voice them. This is what full confidence in the Assyrian Question as Foreign Determination (AQFD) consistently delivers— a scrambling to get to the table, coupled with disappointment at what we are served. Over and over again.

Many Assyrians persist with faith in this strategy, but we should know better by now. We should not neglect ourselves and give in to helplessness. The arrangement we should be seeking is not of salvation but partnership — and partnership demands a dual capacity, mutual benefit and an alignment of interests. That said, even with these things in place, partnerships often break down. The key is being able to withstand the effects of any breakdown in partnership by not investing almost everything we have into them as opposed to ourselves — as we have done in the past.

What did Yousuf Want?

The collected writings of Abraham K. Yousuf have recently been published by Nineveh Press — you can find them here. This is not the place to offer any substantial commentary on them. I just wanted to offer a glimpse into the mind of an Assyrian nationalist one hundred years ago as afforded by the letter in the title of this piece. This letter summarily addresses subjects we are grappling with now.

We have seen our Churches grow further apart and more sectarian in rhetoric and behaviour since — with some individuals even adopting openly anti-Assyrian agendas. Appealing to the leadership of these Churches for national salvation, or at least an ordination of our political efforts as Yousuf attempted to do, remains a seductive but disastrous way to proceed. No such blessings or collaboration is forthcoming — it is simply not in their personal interests to relinquish any power as they are firmly in the marketplace of belief as well as in proffering their own theological ideas. Our Churches have long ceased being keepers of our future or bastions of resistance. It is the ordinary people within them who have that task.

To answer the question in the subheading: Yousuf wanted what every Assyrian wants: the survival and prosperity of our people, wherever they find themselves now. What we need to learn from Yousuf and his peers is how far their methods took them in fulfilling these ambitions in order to avoid repeating their mistakes. That is why it is important that each new generation of Assyrians do not start from scratch; that they learn from those previous. That is a task related to education, organization and institution building — these are the building blocks of self-governance.

No doubt we suffered the gravest of betrayals at the hands the Allied powers during and after the great calamity which befell us, but we find ourselves repeating the same prayers and not focusing on what was of vital importance to Yousuf and others: this notion of “national sanctity”. Forming relationships with other nations is a natural phenomenon but only one part of nation building and definitely not its center piece. Young Assyrians being introduced to these questions are often overwhelmed by both the sheer amount of material but also its scarcity. This arrangement benefits those who elect themselves gatekeepers of our future, or those who are personally invested in sinister and repeated “mistake making”. This arrangement must change.

We must recalibrate our minds and change the way we think and act about our future if we are to have one.