By Yousif Musa
ZAKHO, Kurdistan Region — When Armenians fled the Ottoman Empire’s genocidal campaign during World War I, a Kurdish tribal leader in Zakho embraced them. Locals still remember the man, who was awarded a medal in 1925 by the worldwide Catholic Church’s leader at the time for his lifesaving work.
Mohammed Shammadin Agha Selvan played a pivotal role in sheltering Armenians fleeing between 1916 and 1918. He was recognized by Pope Pius XI for his work protecting Christians from brutality. In 1925, the Catholic leader awarded Selvan a medal.
During the Armenian Genocide – the systematic killing and deportation of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century – approximately 1.5 million Armenians were killed.
Along with the Turks and other peoples, a number of Kurdish tribes, mainly as part of the Ottoman Army, participated in the killing of Armenians during the genocide. Other Kurds like Selvan opposed the mass killings, hiding and sometimes adopting members of the ethnic group.
Nearly a century on, Selvan’s descendants have proudly kept this award left by their ancestor.
“This is the award presented to my grandfather, late Mohammed Shammadin Agha Selvan by Pope Pius XI,” Saad Mohammed Haji Agha told Rudaw on Thursday. “Despite all the hardships, displacement and difficulties our nation saw across different periods of time from 1958 to 1991 and to 2003, and from 2003 up to now, we have kept this award safe and passed it from one generation to the other.”
According to Selvan’s grandson, the leader was the mayor of Zakho in the 1920s.
The awarding of Selvan came after the Virgin Mary Assyrian Church sent official correspondence to the Vatican, praising the Kurdish leader’s role giving Armenian’s shelter on his land and property.
“Our church was the first to be built in Zakho. In 24 hours, [Ottoman] soldiers arrived in Zakho from Mosul. Mohammed Agha came to our church to protect us from the attack,” Polis Henna, a retired priest from Zakho.
Over 2,000 Armenians currently live in the Kurdistan Region, according to Yerwant Nisan, an Armenian community leader and former MP in the Kurdistan Region’s parliament.
The vast majority, around 2,000, are in Duhok province, and 200 live in Erbil. Another 800 Armenians live in Kirkuk, a province disputed between Erbil and Baghdad.
Residents of Afza Rok Miri, an Armenian village in Zakho, still praise Selvan’s role protecting their ancestors who made it to the present-day Kurdistan Region during the genocide.
“My late uncle told me ‘never forget what was done for us [by Selvan],” said Sarkis Yousif, an Armenian resident of the village.
The Constitution of the Kurdistan Region recognizes Armenians as a distinct ethnic group, providing them the right to education in their mother tongue education, and reserves them one seat in parliament.
There are six Armenian churches in the Kurdistan Region – four in Duhok province, and one in Erbil.