Turkey’s Assyrian community says arrest of priest ‘second Brunson case’

Assyrian Associations Federation Chairman Evgil Türker said the arrest of Sefer Bileçen, an Assyrian priest known in his community as Father Aho who was the sole caretaker of the Mor Yakub Monastery in Turkey's southeastern proivnce of Mardin, was outside the bounds of sanity and called for his release.

“If the state releases Father Aho, it will add a good deed to its house. Otherwise, it would place Assyrians against itself, which won’t be good,” Türker was quoted by the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya news agency as saying. 

“We may not have a [U.S. President Donald] Trump of our own, but Turkey will have a second case of Pastor Brunson,” Türker continued, referring to American cleric Andrew Brunson who spent 21 months in a Turkish prison on charges related to the failed coup attempt in 2016 and was released in 2018 following U.S. pressure.

Turkish gendarme forces on Thursday detained Bileçen and nine others including members of the Assyrian community, and the priest was arrested on Friday on charges of aiding and abetting terrorists.

The reason for Bileçen’s arrest was testimony by a member of People's Defence Forces (HPG), the armed wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who said Bileçen provided HPG members with bread and water when they would go to the monastery, according to Mezopotamya. 

The state must take into consideration Bileçen’s status, Türker said. “As men of god, priests have to comply when somebody asks for help, no matter what their religion, race, language or ideology,” he added.

Turkey’s Assyrian community was subjected to massacres and displacement during the events of 1915, after which a majority of the community sought refuge abroad. 

During the 1990’s, the height of Turkey’s conflict with the PKK when thousands of villages in the country’s southeast were evacuated, much of the remaining Assyrians were forced to abandon their villages.

When developments in recent years allowed the community’s return, Bileçen arrived at the Mor Yakup Monastery and undertook its restoration after spending decades in ruins, Türker said. The monastery was opened again in 2013.

“Thousands of tourists visited the monastery in 2019, with undeniable effort by Father Aho,” Türker said. “Now the monastery will close its doors again and be abandoned to its old fate.”

“If you arrest this priest like this now, that clearly means you want locks on the monastery’s doors,” Türker added.