This striking statement of Sait Susin, the chairman of the Beyoglu Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary Foundation, summarizes the situation: “I am the head of the only Assyrian foundation, but I don't know the Assyrian language.”
Assyrians, who are among the oldest inhabitants of Anatolia, have departed from their homeland, Mardin, in huge waves since 1950. Until the 1950s, there were about 60,000 to 70,000 Assyrians in Istanbul, but that number dropped to 15,000. Assyrians have also abandoned a significant part of their culture due to this migration, and now they are about to lose their 5,500-year-old language, Assyrian, which is one of the oldest languages in the world.
Susin said, “We just want permission to teach our children the Assyrian language in kindergarten. However, this permission was not granted as they are not seen as a minority, but part of the Turkish population.”
Radikal: Does the history of the Assyrians in Anatolia go back to the era before Christ?
Susin: The Antioch Church was the first church established after the Christian church was established in Jerusalem. The foundation of the Alexandria church follows this. Later on, the Antioch Church was renamed the Assyrian Church.
There were many splits from the church. Up until 1932, the seat of the patriarch was always in Turkey. First it was in Diyarbakir, than Malatya and then finally Mardin. Now it is in Damascus. The Assyrian population in Turkey has dwindled to 25,000 or so. After the foundation of the Turkish Republic, less than 10% of the Assyrian population remained in Turkey. Due to the small number of Assyrians in Turkey, it was not possible to keep the patriarchate within the Turkish borders.
Arameans assumed the name “Assyrian” after they converted to Christianity, in order to distinguish themselves from the pagan Arameans. Our origins go back 3,500 years. The Assyrian language is one of the oldest languages in the world, with a history of 5,500 years. However it is about to be forgotten, since we are not allowed to establish schools in which we can use our language as the language of education.
Radikal: You were adversely affected by migrations and conflicts. How does the new generation pass on their language to the upcoming generations?
Susin: We face severe problems. Assyrians, when they were living in their homeland, used to learn their language at home or in the church. Yet now, every day, the number of Assyrian speakers decreases. About 80-85% of the Assyrians now live in Istanbul. The only foundation we have in Istanbul is the Beyoglu Assyrian Church of Virgin Mary Foundation. As the president of this foundation, unfortunately, even I can't speak Assyrian.
Radikal: You mentioned that there are more than 10,000 Assyrians living in Istanbul. Is one church enough for the whole population?
Susin: The recent migrations have significantly decreased the Assyrian population in Turkey. Especially after the 1950s, Assyrians migrated to different parts of the world in large numbers. They established their churches everywhere they went. Assyrians have 63 churches in Germany alone. There are 70,000 Assyrians in Germany. We even have churches in South America. The only exception is Istanbul. Here we use seven different churches, but none of these churches are Assyrian churches. Our rituals and timing of religious ceremonies are different from other Christians. Our rites last longer. The Assyrians in Istanbul don't have property; therefore, our foundation doesn't have any revenues.
We want to build our own church. With a contribution from the municipality of Istanbul, we will soon establish our own church near Yesilkoy.
Our request to establish a kindergarten was denied. Due to a misinterpretation of the Treaty of Lausanne, we are not considered as a minority. Certain rights are bestowed on the minorities in Turkey as a result of this treaty. These rights include the right to establish schools and the right to have their own educational systems. However, these rights are only granted to Armenians, Jews and Greeks.
When we applied to open a kindergarten that would teach Assyrian, our demand was denied on the grounds that the Turkish citizens belonging to the Assyrian community are not considered a minority, but are merely part of the Turkish nation. If this were so, then why are we subject to the same treatment that is applied to Turkish minorities in other fields? Why are we, as Assyrians, not allowed to be commissioned officers? Why are our foundations treated as minority foundations? When we publish a magazine, we are supervised by an office that deals with minorities.
Radikal: There are reports suggesting that Assyrians that migrated abroad are returning back to Turkey. Is this true?
Susin: Those who left after the 1950s are still suffering from homesickness. Those who are affluent return to their villages and build new homes. There are only about 17 to 18 families returning back. There is no place on earth where we can feel comfortable apart from Turkey. However there are two issues that are waiting to be fixed. First, we want to enjoy the rights granted to us as minorities. Secondly, we want to see revisions in the history books that give incorrect information about us.
Radikal: How are Assyrian children educated in Istanbul?
Susin: Assyrian children go to Turkish schools. We don't ask for different treatment, either. We only want schools that are subject to the Ministry of National Education and teach in Assyrian.
Here there is another problem. Unfortunately, the official text books accuse Assyrians of treason. The following is a statement [from a Turkish textbook]: “Some Assyrian groups took part in World War I and supported the Russians.” We informed the Ministry of Education about this issue and they said necessary changes would be made. However the same statement can be found in the books published this year. Our children are also educated with these books. An Assyrian child reads this sentence with his Turkish friend next to him. In the minds of the youth, Assyrians are associated with the label of traitor and that discomforts us. We are taking this to court. We attempted to solve the issue through the political avenue, but we couldn't, so now we will take our chances with legal action.
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