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Syriacs in Turkey today: Prison for sharing bread

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Alin Ozinian

A Turkish court sentenced a Syriac priest to two years, one month in prison on terrorism-related charges on April 7. Father Sefer (Aho) Bileçen of the 1,500-year-old Mor Yakup Monastery, a historic church in Turkey’s southeastern province of Mardin, was detained on charges of aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) one year ago.

Shortly after his arrest in January 2020, the priest stated that he had given food to two PKK members who had come to his monastery.

“Two members of the organization came to the monastery in 2018. They asked me for food and I gave it to them. It was discovered afterward. I did not deny it. I wanted security measures to be taken so that this would not happen again. But no security measures were taken. I would offer food no matter who it is who comes to my door. I need to do it for religious and philosophical reasons. I can’t lie since I’m a priest,” Bileçen said in a statement through his lawyer.

Turkish Minute spoke with David Vergili, editor-in-chief of the Syriac Sabro newspaper, who is worried about the future of their community in Turkey.

According to Vergili, there has been a steady decline in the number of Assyrians in Turkey, especially since the 1980s and 1990s, when many were forced to move abroad. There are only around 20,000 Assyrians left in Istanbul.

“Today, Assyrians in the country mostly live in Istanbul, Mardin and Adıyaman. Istanbul Assyrians comprise a community formed after the 1840s, with immigration continuing up to the present day. Historically, the population of Assyrians in their homeland of Mardin, Diyarbakır, Adıyaman, Urfa, Hakkari and Siirt in the last century was around 1 million. The 1915 genocide brought cultural, social and economic destruction,” said Vergili.

Assyrians refer to the killings in their community in 1915 as genocide and call it “Sayfo,” meaning sword. It took place around the same time as the massacre of Armenians. Assyrians were also persecuted during the 20th century and in the late 1980s and 1990s, and conflicts in the region forced many Assyrians to flee their homeland for Europe. Today, they are a small, silent minority in Turkey, while their young people continue to leave the country.

“With the Turkish Republic’s independence in 1923 and during the following years, Syriac schools closed, Assyrian Patriarchate representatives were exiled and their properties were confiscated. The assimilation policies had their cruel effects on the Assyrian minority, which still today cannot benefit from the Treaty of Lausanne.

“Today only informal language education is given in monasteries in Mardin. In Istanbul, there is only one Assyrian kindergarten, and we have the Sabro monthly newspaper published in Turkey,” said Vergili.

Turkey restricted the scope of the Treaty of Lausanne to Armenians, Jews and Greeks. This left other non-Muslims, including Assyrians, outside the protection of the treaty. Assyrians have been particularly vocal in pointing out their unlawful exclusion and demanding recognition of their rights under the treaty. Because of this exclusion, they do not have the right to education in their mother tongue and have set up their own schools just like other minorities.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) fears that there are ulterior motives behind the priest’s imprisonment. CSW founder and president Mervyn Thomas said he was “deeply disappointed” by the court ruling and that the priest’s imprisonment “sends yet another negative message to Turkey’s religious minorities.

“We also call on the international community to press the Turkish government to end all forms of discrimination against religious minorities, and to uphold its constitutional obligations to protect and respect the rights of all citizens regardless of their religious affiliation or ethnic background,” Thomas said in a statement.

Between 2003 and 2010, during the “liberal minority” policies of then prime minister and current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, there were overtures to Assyrians to return to Turkey while confiscated properties were promised to be given back to their owners. The Turkish government encouraged many Assyrians to return to their homeland, although it had an unsuccessful ending.

Some Assyrians went to their old villages from EU countries and restored their houses with the hope that at least they could live in their villages in the summer.

Vergili thinks that at that time Turkish authorities were not ready to again live together with the Assyrians in their homeland. “People returned from Europe, but they started to see bureaucratic problems and other difficulties. In 2008, when the Mor Gabriel Monastery land problem arose, the returns from the EU slowed. This was done consciously by the Turkish state — it was a “Do not come” message to those who wanted to return to Turkey.

“Later, Assyrian properties were transferred to the Directorate of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Treasury and Finance. The Assyrian Diril family disappeared in Şırnak. And today, the punishment of Father Aho points to the existence of a structure in the region that does not tolerate Assyrians. We evaluate the experiences of Father Aho in this framework and describe it as a threat to the Syriacs in the region,” said Vergili.

Assyrians, one of the oldest communities in the Middle East, are trying to preserve what remains of their heritage, even though most of them live outside Turkey now. They are scattered across Europe, with over 100,000 living in Germany, nearly 100,000 in Sweden and tens of thousands in Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

Assyrian human rights activists are routinely detained on charges of terrorism and links to terrorist groups. In late 2015 Assyrian community leaders were among thousands imprisoned by Turkish authorities, including Sado Ide Oshana, president of the Association of Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Aramis. He was accused of terrorism and imprisoned.

In November 2016 authorities removed from office Assyrian Mardin Mayor Februniye Akyol, the first Assyrian woman elected to the position of mayor in Turkey. In March 2017 Yuhanon Aktas, the chairman of an Assyrian organization in Mardin, was arrested and accused of membership in the PKK.

The Assyrian Policy Institute (API) is deeply concerned by the indictment of Assyrian priest Bileçen. “The unjustified accusations made against Father Aho, and the damaging message about his indictment concern us and the Assyrian community in Turkey. We call on Turkish authorities to drop all charges against him without precondition,” said API Chairman Jon Koriel.

“People in Turkey do not know Assyrians, and the state does not recognize the community. Assyrians are a community deprived of their schools, languages, and economic and cultural wealth that experienced assimilation. Education, the press and even political work that existed before 1915 were destroyed and blocked. This is our reality today,” said Vergili.

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