Court Battle Puts Spotlight On Turkey’s Assyrians

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A recent court case in Turkey involving the land holdings of an Assyrian monastery has brought attention to this often neglected minority, writes Orhan Miroglu.

I doubt we would have ever become aware of the Assyrians, the native people of Turkey’s Turabdin region (the geographical and historical designation of the Mardin-Midyat plateau), if it had not been for a court case that was opened three years ago over the Mor Gabriel Monastery near Midyat. It was as if we had discovered a new breed of people. Some, already annoyed by the problems of the Kurds and the Armenians, asked: “And who are those Assyrians now?”

Thankfully, we now know that the Assyrians are one of the most ancient peoples of Mesopotamia. They speak the rich Syriac language, the legacy of the Aramaic language Jesus Christ spoke. In Mardin and Midyat, they have two historical monasteries and many churches that are waiting to be rescued from a derelict state.

Great misfortunes befell them during and after the creation of the Turkish Republic.

The Assyrians were so bullied and oppressed that when former Turkish President Celal Bayar visited Mardin in 1956, the Syriac people there greeted him with banners that read “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk.’”

Lesser numbers, deeper oblivion

Assyrian friends of mine say that Assyrians living in Sweden are happy with President Abdullah Gul’s visit to that country.

The fact that the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the Assyrians, Yusuf Cetin, accompanied Gul on the visit is seen as a significant gesture of goodwill.

But more has to follow now. Assyrian demands should be included more in the democratization and settlement process.

At the turn of the last century, the Assyrian population in Turkey was estimated at 800,000. As the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, their numbers decreased rapidly amid massacres, deportations and immigration waves. The more their population shrank, the more they sank into oblivion.

In the course of a century, they dispersed from Turkey and the Middle East to many countries across the world. The Assyrians’ misfortune is similar to the misfortune and solitude of other peoples that the world has forgotten.

The members of this ancient Mesopotamian community, no matter where they live on the globe, are known for the resolve they have shown throughout history to not be wiped off the face of the earth and to preserve their culture and traditions, and the Aramaic language in which they take pride as the language of Jesus Christ.

Europe, the second motherland

Starting from the onset of the past century, the Assyrians emigrated continuously to Europe and the United States, but their eyes and ears remained focused on Turkey.

What the Assyrians went through in this region left deep scars in their memory. The dwindled Assyrian population in their own homeland is in itself an indication of the scale of their suffering.

The number of Assyrians who stayed in Turabdin, refusing to leave despite all that happened, is about 3,000. But in one single district in Sweden, Sodeterya, there are about 30,000 Assyrians.

Europe is today the place where Assyrians mostly earn their livelihoods. There is an Assyrian diaspora in Europe, concentrated largely in Sweden.

Traces of the past

The Assyrians based in Sweden are an extremely vibrant community, active in all spheres of life. They are steadily building their social, religious and cultural institutions, gaining new experiences and building a new world for themselves far away from home.

The Assyrians are revisiting their collective memory, facing up to the past and producing historical references, with all those efforts made as part of their daily lives. In this context, they have a different agenda from Europeans. History and the past occupy a large space in their lives.

In Sweden, Assyrians have a notable presence in political parties and in bureaucracy.

In the 1980s, the Assyrians hastily sold all that they had and fled to Europe and the United States.

From 1987 to 1994, more than 50 Assyrians — among them the only Assyrian to have served as a mayor in the region, several village headmen and a doctor — became the victim of unresolved killings.

When the killings began, the Assyrians in Midyat were faced with a difficult decision: Should they stay or go?

The choice the state offered was unequivocal: “Either you go to the mountains and fight against us in the ranks of the PKK, or you become [government-armed] village guards and fight the PKK in our ranks.”

The Assyrians chose neither of these options. They abandoned their villages, where they had lived next to Kurds and Arabs, and emigrated to Europe.

The reforms the government has enacted over the past five years appear to have encouraged the Assyrians, since some families have returned to Turkey.

The Mor Gabriel case

But then a court case was opened over the land of the Mor Gabriel Monastery, known also as Deyrulumur, situated several kilometers from Midyat, on the road to Idil. The sacred 1,600-year-old edifice is visited each year by Assyrians scattered throughout the world.

The property became the subject of a court case in a strange and suspicious way. The headmen of three neighboring villages claimed that the monastery’s administration had deliberately invaded their land. They applied to a court in Midyat and raised claims over the monastery’s lands.

Thanks to the case, Turkey and the world began to hear more about the Assyrians. Local and foreign delegations visited Midyat, where the lawsuit proceeded. The Assyrians won the case, however the appeals court overturned the ruling, resulting in the case being taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Mor Gabriel case has brought up also the Assyrians’ rights under the Treaty of Lausanne [the founding document of modern Turkey].

The demands of the Syriacs are not that difficult to meet. The state owes to this ancient people, and it’s high time for it to pay the debt.

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