As Turkey heads to presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24, one party has stood out for the diversity of its candidates. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), is known for its deep links to the Kurdish political movement, but the presence of figures like Tuma Çelik, the Assyrian candidate for the southeast city of Mardin, shows the party’s aim of representing other minority groups.
Assyrians are among the region’s most ancient ethnicities, with a history in Anatolia going back thousands of years. Despite this, they have been virtually invisible on the Turkish Republic’s political stage. Erol Dora was the first Assyrian parliamentarian to discuss his people’s issues after winning a seat on an independent ticket in the 2011 elections.
Like other Christian communities in Turkey, the Assyrians should legally be classified as a minority group under the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defined the concepts of minorities and minority rights in the newly founded Republic of Turkey. They did not, however, benefit from minority rights until a reform package in 2013.
During World War One, Assyrians alongside Armenians were subjected to massacres and forced displacement, recognised by many – though not by Turkey – as genocide. This, and ongoing discrimination decades later drove many thousands to seek safety abroad.
As a result, although there are only around 25,000 Assyrians left in Turkey, some 200,000 Assyrian Turks in the diaspora can cast votes in the elections. Their one expectation is that the party they vote for strives to create conditions that will one day allow them to return.
Çelik, who moved to Switzerland aged nine, was one of those diaspora Assyrians. Now he has returned to Turkey determined to take the concerns of his people, in and outside Turkey, to parliament.
While Çelik is grateful for the strides made by Dora in Turkish politics, he sees his own responsibility to the Assyrian community as an even greater commitment.
“We thank (Dora), but he is an independent deputy. He didn’t have the same status as a representative that I do,” said Çelik. “He is an Assyrian, but not one chosen as a joint candidate by Assyrian groups and associations ... My responsibilities are greater, because I am not only an HDP deputy – I also represent the Assyrian people, and so must pay special attention to their demands.”
Chief among these demands is to ensure a secure and democratic environment for Assyrians. These difficulties have only been exacerbated under the ongoing state of emergency, in place since the 2016 failed coup attempt, Çelik said.
The conflict between Turkish armed forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting since 1984 for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, where the Assyrian population is mostly found. Many Assyrians have found themselves caught between the two sides.
“We have fears around security, since it is impossible to know what will happen from one moment to the next,” said Çelik. “It’s a pity, but we still hang on to memories of the massacres. That is why, whenever there is a situation with diminishing democracy and peace, we always think that we will be the first ones targeted.”
Besides the issues of security, Turkey’s Assyrians face issues related to their identity in a country that stridently promotes its official language, Turkish, at the expense of other native languages, including the Assyrian mother tongue, Aramaic.
Religion is also an issue. Most Assyrians are Syriac Orthodox Christians. Turkey’s Islamist government has made efforts to seize lands belonging to the church, and in a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, it can be difficult for Assyrians to worship in peace.
Çelik pledged to take both these matters up with the Turkish parliament as a matter of urgency, and aims to begin redressing what he says is the 90 years of injustice before Assyrian minority rights were recognised in 2013.
On the issue of language, he said, “our struggle is the same as that of the Kurds … We have a right to our mother tongue on paper, but there are no schools teaching in Aramaic. Another problem is the government’s seizure of land belonging to Syriac monasteries. This brings repression to our churches as well. In this way they restrict our freedom of belief as well as occupying our lands.”
With polls showing the HDP’s support steady, Çelik has every chance of winning a place in parliament in the elections.
The politician believes his party can earn 14 percent in the parliamentary elections, partly due to an influx of votes from people keen to see the party pass Turkey’s 10 percent electoral threshold, which he says is the only way to defeat the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), that would otherwise likely take the seats as the second biggest party in the southeast.
“The government is making efforts to prevent (the HDP from passing the threshold). In Mardin, for example, they took people who voted for us to the police station before our party’s visit and threatened them. People are going around the region with guns. They’re dressed in plain clothes and they’re scaring people,” said Çelik.
As if to underline this point, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was caught on film this week instructing local AKP officials to identify and target HDP voters in their neighbourhoods; the day after this footage was revealed, four people were shot dead in a row between an AKP deputy’s relatives and a HDP-supporting shopkeeper.