Fires on Assyrian land raise arson alarm

Several fires broke out in a short space of time in late July on properties belonging to Turkey’s ancient Assyrian minority in the İdil district of the southeast province of Şırnak, raising suspicions of arson.

The first fires broke out in vineyards belonging to Assyrians, then another struck the olive groves of the Syriac Orthodox Mor Hananyo Monastery. Later fires surrounded several Assyrian villages in the foothills of Bagok mountain in nearby Mardin province.

The Assyrian community has faced attempts by the Turkish state to seize its properties for decades, and the fires have raised fears of a fresh attempt at a land grab.

The Assyrians community is amongst the oldest in the region, but their numbers have dwindled to the extent that they are now one of the smallest minorities in Turkey.

Around 5,000 of Turkey’s 25,000 Assyrians live in the southeastern provinces of Batman, Şırnak and Mardin. The majority now live in Istanbul, and many more have left the country entirely to settle in European countries.

The Christian minority has faced pressures and discrimination from the government, which has taken over Assyrian churches, monasteries and cemeteries and other significant properties over the last two decades. In the community’s ancestral homeland in southeast Turkey, Assyrians have also been affected by decades of conflict between the state and Kurdish insurgents fighting for autonomy.

An early episode leading to losses of land took place when the state began reorganising real estate boundaries in 2007. This led to thousands of acres of land belonging to the ancient Mor Gabriel Monastery near Midyat in Mardin province being taken over by the state.

Some of these were turned over to local villagers, others to the Treasury. Further plots were registered as woodland. The foundation that runs the monastery has been involved in a legal battle since then to reclaim its lost lands, but it has so far only managed to regain 12 out of 30 plots of land.

After the loss of lands that had belonged to Mor Gabriel, the oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world, the reorganisation of Mardin province into a metropolitan municipality caused further losses when it went into effect in 2014.

This resulted in the Assyrian community losing churches, monasteries, cemeteries and other properties when the state seized 110 real estate plots.

Some of these were turned over to Turkey’s exclusively Sunni Muslim state religious organisation, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). This caused an outcry, which resulted in the land being turned over to the Treasury instead. A reform before the national elections in 2018 promised the return of legal ownership of 55 plots of land to the Assyrians, but the reform has still not produced results, and they still face attempts to seize their land at a local level.

This is what happened to several acres of land in İdil district belonging to Ferit Külen, an Assyrian living outside Turkey. Locals illegally constructed buildings on Külen’s land, and Diyanet even built a mosque there, before later demolishing it and beginning work on an even larger one. The construction work, which began without receiving permission from the local municipality, is still ongoing.

“The Assyrians are being stripped of their properties – tens of thousands of their houses, fields, orchards and other properties have been seized or stolen from them. The lands snatched from Külen are just one example of that,” said Tuma Çelik, a deputy for the pro-minorities Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

While still facing these local land grabs, Assyrians are now facing a series of fires on their properties.

Both vineyards belonging to Assyrians in İdil and the olive groves of Mor Hananyo Monastery have been engulfed in flames. Fires on dozens of acres of Assyrian land across Mardin and Şırnak have turned hundreds of olive and almond trees to ash. Around 700 olive trees were lost in the fields belonging to the fifth century monastery alone.   

The still unexplained fires have deprived the monastery of an important source of income, and destroyed the irrigation systems set up for new seedling olive trees.

The fires in Assyrian villages near Nusaybin have raged on despite efforts to extinguish the flames, and social media reports from the time of writing said villagers were still battling fires near six Syrian villages in the foothills of Bagok mountain near Nusaybin.

“It’s interesting that the fire broke out on abandoned land away from the path to the village. I don’t think it started by natural causes,” said Çelik. “That all these fires broke out one after another shows they were set intentionally.”

Kuryakos Ergun, the head of the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation, said whatever the story behind the fires, they had shaken the Assyrian community.

“We don’t know if they were intentional or not, but these fires have shaken us to the core … For the fires to come right when the fruit was ready to pick has been devastating for us,” Ergun said.

Promises made before last year’s elections had raised hopes that members of the Assyrian diaspora would return home and contribute to their communities’ economies, he said. But the lands have still not been returned, and the Assyrians living abroad have so far decided against coming back. The fires have only deepened the community’s disappointment, he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.