CENGİZ AKTAR

Syriacs are full Turkish citizens

The non-Muslim communities of Anatolia and Thrace have all been affected by century-long »»

The non-Muslim communities of Anatolia and Thrace have all been affected by century-long efforts to create a homogenous nation.

The “cleansing” operations started by the Committee for Union and Progress, contrary to popular belief, continued throughout the republican era, though not via the same bloody methods. This “soft” cleansing was hardly explored by the academia. Despite all the past duress, during the creation of the republic in 1923, there were quite a few Armenians, Greeks, Syriacs and Jews. But now, there are no longer near that number, with the unnoticed exception of some Syriacs.

During the early republican era, by the decision of the government, many non-Muslims were forced to leave the regions where they had survived the massacres of the 1910s. Threats, pogroms as well as the banning of their places of worship and educational institutions pushed these minorities to emigrate. Those who were unable to flee abroad took shelter in İstanbul. Similar efforts were behind the forced relocations of Dersim Alevis and other Kurdish tribal groups. The consequences of the ethnic-demographic engineering were no different for Syriac communities.

Their schools were closed down -- despite the Lausanne Treaty -- in 1928 and their patriarch was forced to move to Damascus in 1932. As a result of all of these violations of rights -- not to mention the fact that they were squeezed between cross-fire in the Kurdish conflict -- members of the Syriac community found themselves forced to leave their homes and their population has significantly dwindled. But despite all these negative occurrences over the decades, the Syriac community still exists on its ancestral lands, with operational places of worship. They struggle to maintain their presence and this is precisely why they are on the state’s radar.

Last ‘foreigners’

In the 1970s, I made extensive visits to Tur Abdin in Midyat, where sacred Syriac places are concentrated. Tur Abdin translates to “The Mountain of the Servants (of God)” and is in fact, the religious and cultural heartland of the Syriac community, as well as one of the most ancient centers of Christianity in the world. The Mor Gabriel Monastery is the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the region and probably in the world (A.D. 397), and is where the Tur Abdin bishop resides. Another significant site is Deyrulzafaran, built in A.D. 493 and was the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate from 1160 until 1932, when it was forced to relocate to Damascus. All of these places are too ancient to fit in Turkey’s memory.

A few years ago, a case involving trespassing on the borders of the monastery’s land -- and the occupation of 100 hectares of its forest lands -- by the heads of the villages of Qertmîn (Yayvantepe), Zînol (Eğlence) and Dawrîk (Çandarlı) went to court. The local Midyat court ruled in favor of the monastery twice, but the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the decision and closed the case on June 13, 2012. (There is an online petition to protest against the decision at www.beraberbuyudukbuulkede.com.)

Since the 1930s, the monastery has been paying its taxes and the land survey authorities have duly registered the forest land under the monastery, which is why the local court systematically ruled in favor of the monastery. Despite all these, the Supreme Court of Appeals rejected the case, basing its decision on jurisprudence which it established in 1974. According to the jurisprudence, non-Muslim foundations are considered foreign institutions that are unable to acquire land and thus Turkish citizens of Syriac origin who own them are considered foreigners as well.

While it is crystal clear that this case would have been won by the monastery at the European Court of Human Rights, what else could this collective stubbornness be other than immature anti-Christian feelings mixed with greed? In Turkey, violations of rights typically occur through the unfair behavior of public authorities. But in this case, the state and citizens seem to be walking hand-in-hand.

The time has come for the Syriac citizens of Turkey to emerge on the country’s radar, to appear in its consciousness and -- most importantly -- to become full and equal subjects of the law.

To wit, Turkey is the homeland of the Syriacs just as much as it is the homeland of any of us. There is room for everyone on these colorful lands, but obviously there is no room for ethnic nationalism… at least there should not be.

2012-07-18

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Columnist:: CENGİZ AKTAR