Assyrians in Turkey experience oppression, discriminatory policies a century after the genocide

Assyrians in Turkey experience oppression, discriminatory policies a century after the genocide
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David Vergili: Attacks on Assyrian cemeteries are the manifestation of the government's hate speech

Assyrians are one of the most ancient people in Anatolia, and similar to other minority communities in Turkey, they are being targeted by hate crimes, attacks, and they are frequently ignored. As one of the communities most affected by the discriminatory policies in Turkey, in their “struggle to survive,” Assyrians have endured unsolved murders and assimilation policies which were always present throughout the history of Modern Turkey.

The recent desecration of cemeteries belonging to minorities, and the exhumation of bones from the graves point to the present-day manifestation of the antagonistic policies of the past.

The Editor-in-Chief of the Sabro Newspaper, David Vergili spoke to +GercekNews. He assessed the living standards of Assyrians in Turkey and the destruction of the 1000-year-old gravestones and the exhumation of human bones in Mor Favlus and Mor Fetrus Assyrian Chapel in the Midyat district of Mardin, where close to 5,000 Assyrians live. He also evaluated the reasons for the attacks, the message attackers are trying to send, and the Assyrian Genocide, which is still not acknowledged.

"Assyrians do not have cultural and social rights"

Vergili indicated that around 20-25,000 Assyrians live in Turkey. He emphasized that the vast majority of Assyrians live in Istanbul, Adiyaman, Malatya, Elazıg, Mardin, and the surrounding villages. But, since the Assyrians living in Mardin are not considered "officially recognized minorities," they are not entitled to any cultural or social rights.

In the aftermath of the First World War, on July 24, 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne was signed between Turkey and the United Kingdom, France, USSR, Japan, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania, Yugoslavia, Greece, Belgium, and Portugal. HDP Deputy Erol Dora describes the Treaty of Lausanne as a "minority rights'' document in a sense. In an article he wrote, he pointed out that in the Treaty of Laussane the criteria for recognition as a minority is "being non-Muslim" but in practice, the bureaucracy and various agencies of the Republic of Turkey only recognized Greeks, Armenians, and Jews as minorities and allowed only these groups to benefit from the rights.

In the same article Dora expresses that Assyrians are not recognized as official minorities by saying: "When asked why the Assyrians were not granted the same rights given in the Treaty of Lausanne to the other minorities, the official bodies answer that the (Assyrian) community renounced these rights with the establishment of the Republic. This is a completely fabricated claim. Even if such a renouncement exists, this is legally invalid; since minority rights are individual rights since Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). This means that the rights were given to the individuals, not to the collective group. Even though they are exercised collectively, these are individual rights, groups are not entitled to rights. Therefore, the leader/representative of the community (patriarch, metropolitan bishop) can not renounce the rights of individuals."

The state's attitude towards Assyrians prevents access to social rights

Vergili stated that the last part of the migration wave of Assyrians in Turkey took place in the 90s and the early 2000s, with the democratization demands of the European Union, the plans for Assyrians' return from Europe were implemented.

Vergili said, "There was a period of returns to Turkey, but this process stopped almost completely 15 years ago after the land problems of the Mor Gabriel Monastery. In almost all villages, monasteries have land problems. And occasionally this leads to attacks".

Vergili also addressed the topic of education and social rights:

“Even though a kindergarten was founded in Istanbul, when it was first requested, it was decided that there were no rights to open a school. However, an objection was made against this decision later on. The right to open a school was given, only for once, based on the Treaty of Lausanne. But generally, Assyrians do not have access to the rights of Lausanne, they do not have the permission to open a school based on minority rights, or take steps in education, or establish a hospital or similar foundation organizations.” Vergili said that the reasons for these are the state’s failure to comply with the decisions of the Treaty of Lausanne on minorities and its attitude towards Assyrians.

"Failure to carry out an effective investigation and failure to solve the murders is a disappointment for Assyrians"

Vergili emphasized that the arrest of Assyrian priest Sefer Bilecen and the failure to conduct an effective investigation into the murder of the Diril Couple in Sirnak, leaving the murder unsolved, was a disappointment for Assyrians. And these posed a problem for Assyrians who want to return to Turkey from Europe.

On January 8, 2020, the Chaldean Diril couple living in Sirnak's Beytussebap district were kidnapped. Two months later, the remains of 65-year-old Simuni Diril were found. The 71-year-old Hurmuz Diril has been missing for two years. 

Within the scope of the investigation, Apro Diril, who is a relative of the family and the only eyewitness, was arrested after being detained on June 23 and released on September 10. Apro Diril, was arrested for the second time on October 2 and was re-released on November 1. At the last hearing of the case, the prosecutor and Diril’s attorneys demanded that Apro Diril be released on bail. The court decided to continue the detention of Apro Diril and postponed the trial to September 29. Orhan Kemal Cengiz, the couple’s attorney, said that the perpetrators were being protected and they were not being punished.

Journalist Hatice Kemer states that Chaldeans are called "Eastern Assyrians" in an article she wrote:

"In history, the Chaldeans are known as the ruling class of the Babylonian Empire. The Chaldeans, who are a branch of the Arameans from the Western Semitic nations and are from the same people as the Ancient and Modern Assyrians are called "Eastern Assyrians" in some scientific studies. The Assyrians who did not recognize the decision of the 431 "Council of Ephesus" and instead accepted the teachings of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople who was excommunicated are called Nestorian or Syriac. As of 1553, some Nestorians adopted Catholicism and accepted the authority of the Pope.

The Eastern Church Christians who adopted Catholicism are called Chaldeans. In some sources, the name Chaldeans originates from the Southern Mesopotamian nation of Ancient Chaldeans. According to the research of Sirnak University assistant professor Kasim Ertas, there are nine villages belonging to the Chaldeans in the Southeastern Anatolia Region and eight of them are within the borders of the Sirnak province. The villages of Geznex, Hozi and Mehri (Mer) are part of the Beytussebap district."

 Priest of Mor Yakup Monastery, Sefer (Aho) Bilecen, who was detained on January 9, 2020 in the Nusaybin district of Mardin alongside 10 people was arrested on January 10, 2020, and released on January 14, 2020. He was sentenced to two years and one month imprisonment in the case where he was tried for allegedly “aiding a (terrorist) organization.” Bilecen stated that two members of the organization came to his house for food and after he gave them food, the Gendarme Commander interviewed him and kept a report while using the Metropolit (bishop) as the middleman to get in touch with him. After his arrest, Bilecen shared the following message through his attorneys:

“I will give (food) to whoever comes to my door. I have to give it because of religious and philosophical reasons. And since I am a priest, I cannot lie. I am not doing this to help any organization, but because of my faith. I cannot report (them) because of both philosophical and religious reasons.”

“Attacks on Assyrian cemeteries are the manifestation of the government's hate speech”

Stating that the attacks on cemeteries are not new and instead, have a history, Vergili underlined in our conversation that the groups outside the Turkish-Islamic synthesis are more common targets of these attacks.

Vergili said, “To date, we haven't seen the report of an attack on the tomb of a well-known Turkish or Muslim person in Turkish media.” He underlines that in recent years Kurdish movement is also being attacked with these methods, and the cemetery attack of the mother of HDP Deputy Aysel Tugluk, who is a political prisoner, is an example of this.

Vergili said that the cemetery attacks are the manifestation of the government's hate speech. He also highlights that the message given is the idea of “we will not stop bothering you even after you are dead.”

1915 Sayfo Martyrs Remembrance Day

 David Vergili also explained the 1915 Assyrian Genocide which is also known as Sayfo (sword). Vergili said “As of 2015, with a decision taken by the Syriac Orthodox Church at a meeting, 15 June was accepted as the ‘1915 Sayfo Martyrs Remembrance Day.’ It is very hard to constructively talk about 1915 in Turkey. With the nationalist atmosphere gaining momentum in recent years, these discussions have become very difficult. This year, the rhetoric and attacks that followed HDP Deputy Garo Paylan's interpellation about the Armenian Genocide show us how impossible it is to talk about them.”

What happened?

HDP Deputy Garo Paylan presented the bill he prepared about the “Recognition of the Armenian Genocide and Removal of the Names of Genocide Perpetrators from Public Spaces” to the Speaker of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. After the interpellation, Paylan was the target of hate speech supported by politicians on social media.

*Mustafa Sentop, Speaker of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, returned Garo Paylan's bill on April 23, based on the proposal being contrary to the Internal Regulation.

*AKP Spokesperson Omer Celik said in a statement he made on his Twitter account, “No one can slander our nation of genocide. The relevant person should immediately apologize to the great Turkish Nation. We will take the necessary legal action in this regard. This immoral bill which slanders our nation is invalid.”

* Good Party leader Meral Aksener also made a statement on her Twitter account and said: “I strongly condemn the disrespect that tries to make our nation bow down with the so-called 'genocide' bill presented to the Grand National Assembly. The Great Turkish Nation has a history to be proud of. As long as we are here, no dirty agenda can change this fact.”

The date of devastation: 1915

Vergili, who said that the Assyrian Enlightenment began in the early 1900s with Assyrians opening schools and conducting journalism and this was an era where the relations with Europe developed, has noted that 1915 has stopped these developments.

“For Assyrians, 1915 is the date of destruction in every aspect. After this date, the vast majority of Assyrians were killed and deported. Assyrian schools were shut down, and two religious centers in Mardin were relocated outside Turkey. Later on, the assimilation policies against Assyrians continued under the policies of the Republic. They were subjected to the Cyprus operations starting in the 60s, the military coup and unsolved murders in 80s and 90s.”

The consequences of the rising nationalism starting with the Cyprus operation and the military coups turned into an effort to survive in Turkey for Assyrians, and other non-Muslim minorities as well. After these events, the majority of Assyrians who were under attack in every aspect had to migrate.

Vergili stressed that there was never a period when Assyrians lived in peace and he referred to the massacre that Assyrians experienced not only in Turkey but also in Iraq. “Even though we are talking about the problems of Assyrians in Turkey, in 2014 Assyrians were also subjected to the genocide committed by ISIS attacks where Yazidis were mostly on the news. They had to leave their 100-year-old lands. In one night, 220 thousand Assyrians had to leave their homes. We cannot see anything that inspires hope when we observe the period from 2014 until the liberation of Mosul.”

*Rozerin Yuksel was born and went to school in Istanbul before studying journalism at Onsekiz Mart University. Her studies focused on rights-based journalism and new media during her university years and she participated in various social responsibility projects.