Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Also called Syrian Orthodox Christians or Syriacs, the language and practices of Assyrians originated in early Christianity. Their historical homeland in Turkey is in the provinces of Mardin and Hakkari in the south-east. Around 95 per cent of Assyrians in this region have left Turkey because of persecution and displacement. Today, their numbers are estimated at approximately 25,000, with the large majority based in Istanbul and around 3,000 based in the south-east.
Assyrians belong to the same ethnicity and speak the same language (Assyrian). They are divided into four main groups based on differences of theological interpretation and denomination. The Assyrian Orthodox community in Turkey has four metropolits: Turabdin, Mardin, Adıyaman and Istanbul. Their patriarchate is in Damascus, Syria. The Deputy Patriarch of Assyrian Catholics is also in Istanbul; their patriarchate is in Lebanon.
The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) estimates that during 1915-1918, around 750,000 Assyrian Christians were killed after a fatwa was declared against them, and this impacted directly on the dispersal of the community across the Middle East, especially to Iraq where a strong Assyrian community already existed. Further dispersal has continued as the community has experienced waves of persecution.
The Assyrian community was invited by the British to be an ally in World War I. In return, they were promised autonomy, independence and a homeland. After the British mandate in Iraq expired, the question was never resolved and the status of Assyrians in Iraq was left with the government there.
In Turkey in the 1920s and 30s particularly, Assyrians continued to suffer alongside Kurds and Armenians as, under Turkish law, their villages were assigned Turkish names. They were also caught up in the conflict between the Turkish armed forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) during 1984-99. They suffered forced evictions, mass displacement and the burning down of their homes and villages. Internally displaced people (IDPs) were not offered adequate compensation or provided with alternative housing. The displaced were not allowed to return to their homes until 1999.
In June 1994, the Assyrian Democratic Organization and Human Rights Without Frontiers issued a joint file at a press conference at the Belgian Parliament that listed 200 Assyrian villages destroyed in Turkey in the previous 30 years and a list of 24 Assyrians assassinated in Turkey since 1990.
During the 1990s, reports by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations documented the ongoing persecution of Assyrians in Turkey, including abductions (including of priests), forced conversions to Islam through rape and forced marriage, and murders.
These pressures, and other more insidious forms of discrimination, have decimated the community.
Turkey has restricted the scope of the Treaty of Lausanne to Armenians, Jews and Rums. This has unlawfully 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 the recognition of their rights under the Treaty. Because of this exclusion, they do not have the right to education in their mother tongue, something that many Assyrians wish to pursue. They also do not have the right to set up their own schools, enjoyed (albeit with state restrictions) by other minorities.
Despite some signs of progress – for example, in the government has officially allowed the celebration of the Assyrian New Year (Akito), since 2005, with such dwindling numbers and often caught between the Kurdish demands and the state, the community’s survival in Turkey remains under severe pressure. However, an important milestone for Turkey’s Syriac population was the election in the June 2015 general elections of a member of parliament with Syriac heritage, Erol Dora – the first member of the community to be elected.
Land and property rights remain significant issues for the Assyrian community, which in recent years have reportedly seen at least 100 properties transferred to the state. In 2015 the European Commission called on the government to resolve issues around the restitution of land belonging to Syriacs, including the 4th century Mor Gabriel and other churches in Mardin province. These issues were rooted in the transfer of ownership of land and properties belonging to the Assyrian Orthodox Church to the state in 2014, a situation that has only begun to be resolved after years of negotiations. Mor Gabriel was formally returned in November 2017 and it is hoped that a planned bill announced in February 2018 will see other community properties restored.
Updated June 2018
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