MARDIN, Turkey — A 25-year-old student has burst onto the political scene in Turkey as the first Christian woman to govern a metropolitan city in this predominantly Muslim republic.
Put forward as a candidate by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Turkey’s main Kurdish party, in municipal elections on March 30, Februniye Akyol was elected co-mayor of the southeastern city of Mardin together with Ahmet Turk, 71, a widely respected veteran Kurdish leader. The BDP splits all top posts between a man and a woman to boost female participation in politics.
“The Kurdish party has enabled me to fight for my people and its rights, and this is what I am going to do,” Akyol told Al-Monitor in an interview in Mardin this week. “I’m not here as an ornament.”
Akyol, the daughter of a silversmith, is a member of the Syriac community, an ancient branch of the Christian faith whose followers still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. The region of Tur Abdin near Mardin, a plateau dotted with monasteries that go back to the fourth century, is the Syriacs’ historical heartland.
Turkey has had Christian mayors of smaller towns before, and in 2011 the Syriac politician Erol Dora, also running on a BDP ticket, became the first Christian member of parliament in Ankara since the 1960s. But Akyol is the first Christian to govern one of Turkey’s 30 metropolitan municipalities.
The Syriac community, which numbered around 200,000 people in Tur Abdin a century ago, was decimated by the massacres of Anatolian Christians during World War I, when Syriacs shared the fate of the Armenians. In the decades that followed, many survivors and their descendants fled poverty, persecution and the war between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels in the region to settle in Europe. Today, a total of 150,000 Syriacs live in Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. Some 15,000 are in Istanbul, but less than 5,000 remain in Tur Abdin.
Although Turkey began issuing appeals for Syriacs to return to their homeland in the early 2000s and strengthened social and religious rights under the country’s EU membership application, Akyol said her community did not yet enjoy full democratic privileges. “Syriacs here are still not free, they can’t live in peace,” Akyol said.
The newly elected mayor’s own name is a case in point. Born and christened Fabronia Benno, she had to run for office under her official Turkish name, Februniye Akyol, because of long-standing restrictions on the cultures and languages of ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey. Since the Syriacs are not officially recognized as a religious minority by the Turkish state, they are not allowed their own schools to teach their ancient language to their children. Many Syriac villages were destroyed in the war between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a rebel group fighting for Kurdish self-rule since 1984.
It was jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan who launched Akyol into her political career. Shortly before the March elections, Ocalan, still considered the top leader of Turkey’s estimated 12 million Kurds, despite serving a life sentence on the prison island of Imrali near Istanbul since 1999, decreed that the BDP should field a female Syriac candidate for co-mayor in Mardin.
Following Ocalan’s order, BDP officials asked Akyol, a student for a master's degree in the Aramaic language at Mardin’s Artuklu University, to run with only two months to go before election day. “This is how I came to office,” Akyol said.
Contemplating a partnership with her Kurdish running mate was difficult at first, she admitted. Kurds played a major part in the massacres against Syriacs and Armenians in southeastern Anatolia between 1915 and 1917. “Yes, Kurds persecuted us Christians, and the trauma is deep-rooted,” Akyol said. “I used to have prejudices [against Kurds] myself.”
But Ahmet Turk, chief of an influential Kurdish clan in the Mardin area, helped Akyol to overcome her doubts. He became the first Kurdish leader in Turkey to officially apologize to the Armenian, Syriac and Yezidi communities for the killings of 1915. “Our forefathers mistreated these peoples, and we apologize as their grandsons,” Turk said.
As a political pair, Turk, an old hand in Turkish politics with 40 years of experience, and the political novice Akyol jointly faced their first challenge even before taking office in Mardin. They said the outgoing municipal administration engaged in foul play by handing over municipal assets to other state institutions before vacating office, leaving Turk, Akyol and their new city administration without desks, computers, vehicles or even the town hall itself.
Turk called the maneuver an act of sabotage by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which was defeated by the BDP candidates in Mardin on March 30. After officially taking office on April 8, the new mayors vowed to fight back and litigate. “We will spoil that game together,” Turk said. But for now, Februniye Akyol is using her private car to get around town.