The Milliyet newspaper published an interview with Aramean journalist Yakup Bilge on May 15. I think the interview is full of important and sophisticated details about the situation of religious minorities in Turkey.
Bilge tell us about the new trend of Arameans (known as “Süryanis” in Turkish) starting to return to their homes in Southeast Turkey, which they traditionally call Tur Abdin. This is, of course, quite a hopeful development and Bilge explains this in the context of Turkey’s changing, widely understood minority policies. Apparently Arameans have relatively more confidence in Turkey now. But Bilge also mentions how some of this government’s policies contradict their general minority-friendly approach. In this context, Bilge specifically mentions legal cases initiated by the Turkish Treasury to seize some of Mor Gabriel monastery’s lands.
I thought Mr. Bilge’s interview gave a serious insight into the situation of minorities in Turkey, and I have therefore quoted some key statements below. Let’s read these parts together:
“There is no doubt that the number of those who returned is not as much as it sometimes exaggerated to be. But more significant than the actual numbers involved is the very idea of returning in itself. Not only have the examples of Arameans who have returned given those in the diaspora a real hope that they can in fact return to their homeland, but it has also lent hope that Arameans in Tur Abdin, whose numbers have dwindled to 2,500, might stay on in the region.”
“There are still some very great problems in the socio-economic structure of the region, but these problematic areas will be positively affected by those who return…”
“For all Arameans, Turkey is the first and most ancient homeland. So, as a country, Turkey is always in their hearts. No matter where in the world they are, Turkey -- and especially the Tur Abdin region of Turkey -- is a place Arameans want to visit, and to which they wish to return.”
“When we observe the historical periods during which Arameans have lived in Turkey, it can be seen that they experienced considerable amounts of difficulty and pain, so that it would be quite difficult for the state or elected government to claim they have no image problems on this front. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan first came to power, some very important changes took place in terms of the image of the state and the government. Erdoğan did something no other prime minister had done before; he met with religious leaders from non-Muslim communities, and listened to their problems.”
“During 2010, Erdoğan published a historic prime ministerial circular. There are two important points highlighted in this circular. The first points to the fact that non-Muslim congregational members working in governmental organizations should not be ‘made to face difficulties; their rights are not be harmed. As evident from the relative legislation, this carries a great deal of significance in terms of making them feel that they are a part of our state and the Turkish nation.” These sentences highlight that there are clearly serious problems in this regard. And the second point demands that legal procedures are immediately followed against any publications that encourage hatred and enmity towards non-Muslim congregations. This dialogue and the prime ministerial circular create a positive image; however, not only was this not followed up with more initiative, but a minister of the government conducted activities that conflict with the circular.
“A move by the treasury, which became a state organization as of 2008, to purchase the land of the Mor Gabriel Monastery really surprised the Aramean community. I don’t know how possible it is for the image in the minds of Arameans to be positive in such a situation…”
“Tur Abdin and its surroundings, and the Mor Gabriel monastery which can be found there, is the most sacred of religious centers for the Arameans, for whom the region around Mor Gabriel and Tur Abdin are the most important places to visit following Jerusalem… It is most likely that the lands surrounding the monastery have belonged to it for some 1,600 years.”
“In the cases opened against the monastery after 2008, it was surprising for the Arameans to see that it was not just the villagers themselves, but the state that took part in the process. What confused the Arameans most were the cases opened up by the treasury against the monastery...”
Bilge goes on to describe the details of the legal struggle. The local court delivered a decision in favor of the monastery, but the Treasury then appealed against the decision. Bilge expressed his surprise at the Treasury’s aggressive pursuit of this case.
The Treasury’s legal struggle to seize some of the monastery’s property clearly show me that the mentality which sees non-Muslims in Turkey as non-citizens continues for some segments of the state. A deep level of change requires a deep level of questioning of the past and honest confrontation with past policies. We are not there yet.