“Our churches in Urfa were turned into mosques, storage depots” - Leading Syriac of Turkey
This summer, representatives from Turkey’s non-Muslim religious communities gathered in Istanbul to sign a joint statement denying any pressure being placed on minority groups in the country. In addition to religious leaders from Greek, Armenian, and Jewish communities, Orhan Çanlı, who is Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church of Turkey, was among the signatories.
When Ahval interviewed the President of the Federation of Syriac Associations Evgil Türker in the southeastern city of Mardin, he had a very different message:
“I completely disagree with this statement. Istanbul’s Syriac Foundation claims to feel comfortable, but they need to visit Mardin. Here, our property is being seized. The government may not target us individually, but seizing assets from our foundations still imposes great pressure on us. The fact that foundations in Mardin, Midyat, and Idil did not sign onto this declaration shows that we have a problem here.”
Syriacs have lived in the region of Mesopotamia, including southeastern Turkey, for 5,000 years. Türker explains, “The history of Syriacs in this land extends back to the Akkadian Empire…Following the birth of Christianity, Syriacs were one of the first people to accept the new religion. After adopting the religion, they spread it first in this region, and then extended up to the Far East.” Unfortunately, there history of Syriac persecution is almost equally extensive: “The Crusades did a lot of harm to Syriacs. Muslims in the region began to vilify Syriacs, who were periodically put under pressure and massacred.”
In the face of this persecution, Syriacs have struggled to preserve and maintain their culture. “For 280 years Syriacs maintained a kingdom in Urfa, but today our name is not even spoken in the city. Our churches in Urfa were turned into mosques or storage depots. The Halil-ür Rahman Mosque in Balıklıgöl is actually our Virgin Mary Church. The old bell tower is still in tact today.” Türker adds that Kurdish leaders were also complicit in these persecutions, especially at the end of the Ottoman Empire.
Although Syriacs were targeted in specific areas for much of their history, persecution rarely affected the entire population as a whole. This changed in 1915: “The 1915 genocide is the most tragic massacre we have suffered. The genocide began with Armenians, and ended with Syriacs. It changed the demography of the region, and destroyed two thirds of our population. Syriacs were erased from a large part of the region not only physically, but also culturally.”
Considering the rich history of the Syriac people, Türker finds toleration of minorities to be patronizing. “They reduced us and minimized us until we became a minority. This is a hurtful term. We are still experiencing the trauma of 1915, because this genocide effaced us from the land that we inhabited. Now, we are subjected to tolerance. Tolerance is actually a condescending word… Syriacs are one of the oldest inhabitants of this land—they gifted this world a great civilization—and now they are beholden to tolerance. What this word actually says is, ‘You are minor, and we are doing you a kindness.’”
Attempts to assimilate Turkey’s Christians through forced Islamization also targeted Syriacs. In 1915, many families were forced to convert and adopt Muslim traditions, and young women were kidnapped and raised as devout Muslims.
Due to these extensive pressures, as well as taxes the government levied to target non-Muslims, many Syriacs fled the country. Türker claims that almost all of the Syriacs that live in the Syrian city of Haseke today are families that fled Mardin and its environs to live under a French protectorate. Many of them are now fleeing ISIS and other jihadist organizations, and moving to Europe. Nearly three hundred thousand Syriacs live in Europe, and most of them are from Turkey.
Türker himself spent 24 years abroad, and says the experience of living apart from his land was very painful: “No one wants to leave their land. People claim the migration has been a result of economic troubles, but Syriacs are artisans. The real cause of their migration is the hardships they had to endure. The nationalist policies of the republican government established after World War I forced Syriacs to leave.”
Syriacs grew hopeful in 2013, when the Turkish government began to pursue a peace process with Kurds in the region. Many even returned to Turkey and rebuilt their towns. But the renewal of fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces in the summer of 2015, as well as the state of emergency that was declared following the 2016 coup attempt, renewed concerns about returning. “Under the state of emergency, no one can freely express their ideas…One of topics that especially concerns us is the seizure of Syriac property. Although it was clear that private entities had claim to the property, the government treated the assets as if they had no owner, and they were transferred to the Ministry of Religious Affairs or the Treasury… Some confiscated property has been returned, but some remains under government control.”
Nevertheless, Türker has hope for the future. He hopes that a new peace process can begin, so that democratic progress is possible once more. Generations after their ancestors were forced to give up their culture, descendants of Islamized Syraics have approached to Türker for help returning to their roots. “Once someone approaches us, it is difficult for them to turn back. Once they say, ‘I am Syriac and want to be Christian,’ they sever their ties with their existing communities, and they have no guarantee of being accepted by their new community.”
But he also explains that their backgrounds do not matter much anymore.
“What matters is that people represent the unity and fraternity of the people that inhabit these lands, that they protect the cultural heritage of Syriacs as well as others. These lands belong to Syriacs, Armenians, Kurds, and all of the people who live here. What matters is that they can live together in justice and harmony.”