Assyrian Christians fear for future in Turkey – report

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Assyrian Christians, also known as Syriacs, fear for their community’s future in Turkey despite a recent slight increase in their numbers, AFP said on Friday.Evgil Türker, head of the Federation of Syriac Associations, told AFP that – like other communities in Turkey – Assyrians have been affected by the same economic issues and “political pressures” under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s government.

Many Assyrian Christians, also known as Syriacs, were forced to leave Turkey in the 20th century due to poverty and violence,  especially in the 1980s and 90s as conflict raged between Kurdish militants and the state in the southeast of the country.

There are now only 4,000 Assyrians left in the region, AFP said.

Yuhanun Akay, a 40-year-old Assyrian, told AFP there were now just three families living in his village of Gülgöze in the southeastern Turkish province of Mardin.

“In the past there were 200 Syriac Christian families, and seven priests in the village. We had three churches, so each neighbourhood had a church,” Akay said.

Assyrians who were forced to flee Turkey are scattered across Europe, with over 100,000 living in Germany, nearly 100,000 in Sweden, and tens of thousands in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, AFP said. There are around 20,000 Assyrians living in Istanbul.

During Erdo?an’s tenure as prime minister between 2003 and 2014, Turkish Assyrians were invited to return to their homeland and some confiscated properties were given back to their owners.

However, many members of the community only return to Turkey seasonally, coming back in summer and returning to their homes in Europe during the autumn, Akay said.

He added that this is one of many reasons why Syriac villages remain largely empty and why many churches and schools are no longer open.

Earlier this year, there were fears that the Christian community was being targeted after a Chaldean Catholic couple went missing in January in ??rnak, near the Iraqi border.

?imoni Diril, 65, was found dead in March, while her husband Hürmüz Diril, 71, remains missing.

The arrest of Syriac Orthodox priest Sefer Bilecen in January on terrorism charges also raised fears among Turkish Assyrians.

Türker said he did not believe that state-led targeting of Assyrians was taking place in Turkey.

Yet, Assyrians remain concerned over their heritage in Turkey, AFP said.

“It’s as if the language is slowly starting to melt away, and that’s upsetting,” Akar told AFP. “For a religion like this, a race like this, a people like this to fade away is really bad, it’s saddening,”