Sabro to represent voices of Assyrian community in Turkey

Sabro, which means hope in Aramaic, is the first newspaper representing the Süryani, or the Arameans (the Syriac community) of Turkey, in the history of the republic.
Editor-in-Chief Tuma Çelik notes that since the past is marked by unpleasant events for the Aramean community, they no longer wish to live tied to this past. They want to look forward. Çelik shard his opinion on many issues in Turkey, including on the 1915 incidents, the forced deportation of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, which Armenia today says amounted to genocide, although Turkey officially denies the allegation.

Çelik says: “The events that occurred in 1915 cannot be blamed on the Ottomans or the Turks. What occurred was actually the creation of ?ttihat ve Terakki. We are now living out our most comfortable era yet. The current government has taken some important steps and we wish to find their approach sincere. But as yet, we do not have any legal guarantee of this.” When asked why the Assyrians had waited this long to publish their own newspaper, Çelik replies, “We waited for the right conditions.

We could not have published our own newspaper five or 10 years ago. And had we waited any longer, we would have been too late.”

He shared with Today’s Zaman readers, his memories of growing up as a non-Muslim in Turkey, and the stories of the struggle of the Aramean community for their identity. Here is Çelik’s take on Turkey and its issues:

You were among those who left the country in the 1980s…

Yes, and under normal conditions there was no reason for me to leave. But psychologically speaking, I was not at ease. I began to think to myself, “Why are these other people leaving?” And then I realized that there were some real problems and that these problems affected me as well. I began to try to solve these problems, and then the real trouble began. I couldn’t take it anymore. So I left and formed a family abroad.

So how were the Arameans (Syriacs) affected during the 1980s?

The most serious pressure on Arameans was when religious education became mandatory. This was a very difficult situation for a community that had lived for 2,000 years as Christians and was constantly aware of this identity. There were some schoolteachers that forced members of our community to recite the Kelime-i ?ehadet (Muslim profession of faith) or memorize passages from the Quran. Had there been no pressure, memorizing these passages would have been no problem. Also, the tension between the Kurds and the state had a profound effect on us. While the fight at hand was nothing to do with us, and while we did not take sides at all, both sides tried to pull us into their folds. The state was motivated by the mentality that “while they might not be with me, they may not act against the other side!” and we were forced to migrate. And during that period of so many unsolved murders, there were nearly 50 members of the Arameans community who were killed.

But of course it was not just Arameans who were on the receiving end of pressure, or who were killed, during that period of time in Turkey…

Yes, of course, there was general pressure to homogenize society. But if you were Turkish or Muslim, these sorts of things only hurt up until a certain point. And the events that occurred did not just harm Arameans but also Christians in Turkey. However, the Armenians and Greeks had ways of pursuing justice. We, on the other hand, had no legal standing. When we voiced our problems we were perceived as being some other side’s tool or something. But, of course, that was not the case; we were never a tool for anyone. We just no longer wished to be perceived as the “other.” Why should we be perceived as a community that is just “put up with”? Did we make some mistake, commit some crime? But this is how we have been perceived for years in Turkey.

And so, 25 years later, you return to the land where you were born. What affected your decision to return?

In Europe, we Arameans formed all sorts of different associations. Personally, I was involved in efforts to see our rights defended. At the start of the 1990s, we began a struggle to see Arameans become more organized and educated and we saw within this framework our economic, cultural and group advancement. It was as a result of this struggle that I returned to Turkey.

So what led to the decision to publish Sabro?

While talking with Turkish friends, I asked myself the question: “Why is our voice not better heard?” In fact, in a moment of crazy nonsensical talk, I even asked: “Do we actually have to become terrorists or something to have our voices heard? Do we need to place bombs somewhere or something?” And one of my friends replied: “You are trying to have your voices heard in Europe, but this won’t gain you anything. You need to make them heard in Turkey.” It was at this juncture that several of us from the Arameans community came together and decided to publish the Sabro newspaper.

What sort of goals are you trying to achieve with Sabro?

We have two basic goals. The first is to see ourselves properly represented and have our voices heard. This is important because there is so much incorrect information out there about Arameans. And this is not just a problem that implicates one side; many of the mistakes are ours. After all, how much have we shared so that others may learn who we are? Perhaps we wanted to but were never able to. And the second goal is to get to know those around us better with this newspaper because we live with so many people of other colors on these lands.

Do you believe that you are not as familiar as you should be with the other colors of society around you?

I think not enough, actually. Up until now, there haven’t really been the opportunities for us to get to know the other side. As an Aramean, I knew the other side of society only in school and from what was told to me.

Will Sabro deal not only with matters that concern the Aramean Syriac community but also general problems and issues on the Turkish agenda?

Our general idea is to approach Turkey from different perspectives, from economic, political and cultural angles. But, of course, it depends on our financial capabilities too. Ideally, we aim to be a newspaper that gives space to every color in society and approaches every angle of Turkey. Which is why we plan on giving over lots of space to articles that deal with Turkish matters, and why among our writers there are Turks and Kurds.

How is the newspaper distributed?

Well, we are having both economic and technical problems on that front. We do not have the funds to hire a distribution firm so our newspaper is distributed through volunteers.

The newspaper “Apoyevmatini” (a Greek language daily in Turkey) recently had financial problems and, in fact, the government even helped them out on that front. As a new newspaper how do you plan on overcoming your financial problems?

We do have sponsors. They take care of some of our expenses. We try to take care of the rest of our expenses with the help of volunteers. Our reporters and columnists are all volunteers. However, those placing ads in the newspaper are not just Arameans, and this increases our sense of hope. At this point our only real expenses are from printing the paper.

So has the Aramean community embraced this newspaper?

Actually, one faction has seen it as a threat towards them. This same faction wishes to see the status quo continue. They think, “We are comfortable as it is, we have no problems.” There is a faction of suppressed Arameans. I don’t think they have any ulterior motives, or that they behave like this because they are benefiting from the system in any particular way. I just think they are afraid and they have certain habits. They think it’s pointless to create problems where none existed before. They are not aware of the change in Turkey or that we are trying to be part of the change and contribute to this change. The Arameans in ?stanbul are a part of the larger system now; in fact, they are a part of the status quo.

It is difficult to change this mentality? What are you doing to effect change?

We are trying to explain things. We will not fight with them. Our real goal is to explain ourselves to others. As Arameans we want to find our place in Turkey’s change and development, and we say that now is the right time. Two or three years ago, it might have been too early and just two years later, it might have been too late. This is precisely the right time for such a step.

Why do you write in Turkish and not Aramaic?

I know how to speak Aramaic, but not how to read or write it. In fact, I know as little Aramaic as I do German. I write in Turkish and a friend of mine translates into Aramaic.

Have you received any personal negative reactions regarding the newspaper?

No, I haven’t. To the contrary, something surprising happened that really made me happy: They called from the Alperen Ocaklar? and congratulated us. The person on the phone said, “We might be in opposite sides, but I wanted to congratulate you.”

Does it bother you that when people hear the word “Süryani (Aramean)” they immediately think Midyat and the Mor Gabriel church?

Yes, of course. We are seen as limited to Midyat, Mor Gabriel and jewelry. We have set out to change this perception.

What is the societal tableau you dream of?

We want to see an atmosphere in which people trust one another and feel comfortable. Sabro means “hope” for this reason. With our writing, we hope to break the dark tableau before us. The fact that we are now a newspaper is a product of hope. For example, I returned to Turkey after 25 years living abroad. If I had not been full of hope, I would not have returned.

Was it not very difficult setting up a new life here after so many years?

Well, that is a situation that has everything to do with your goals. If my goal had been an easy life it would have been very difficult. But we have real goals and responsibilities. And in order to attain these goals and fulfill these responsibilities, we can deal with everything as it comes. Of course, it is very difficult to break some of the habits I picked up abroad.

Have you ever said to yourself “I wish I had never left”?

Yes, I wish I had stayed in Turkey. Turkey is changing. The more devout in this country have been under pressure, but they did not leave. They stayed and struggled, and now they have so many more rights than in the past. And whether or not you like their style of struggle, the same can be said for the Kurds. They now have much more in the way of rights than in the past. Arameans should have stayed and struggled.

There is a general view that the rally in Hocal? was targeted by provocation. How have you as Arameans been affected by the events?

Were there no Interior Minister involved, we would just pass over it, saying it’s the actions of a few senseless people. It is not possible to understand how the Interior Minister could give permission for such an atmosphere, or why he would let his name be used. Look at the Hrant Dink case. The court said, “There was no organization involved.” Who can guarantee us that something similar won’t happen to us sometime in the future? If people authorize those things, how can I ever feel safe in this country?

How did you view the Prime Minister’s apology on Dersim?

This was a very important step. But I ask, did this only occur in 1938? What is at the root of 1938? Why is 1915 not talked about? Whether or not genocide was attempted, this is not our business. We do not think of blaming what happened on either the Ottomans or the Turks. Our only expectation is that someone will say, “We condemn the wrong events which occurred under the ?ttihat Terakki era” and that these events do not define us. We would thus like to see a legal guarantee that such things will not happen to us again and that we can live in happiness and serenity.

I want to find the approach of the government sincere
How do you view the approach of the government towards minorities?

When compared to the past, we can say that important steps have been taken towards minorities under the rule of the AK Party. At the start of the 2000s, Arameans began to return to Turkey. This was a result of good things that happened. We expect this process will continue and that steps will be taken to secure our legal rights. I really do want to find the approach of the government sincere. I think they have good intentions, but there is still no legal guarantee in place for us. Today the leadership is good, but tomorrow it could be something else. No matter how good the central leadership is, since there are no legal guarantees in place we are subject to the whims and desires of those in local power. Some come, others go, but we have no guarantees.–community-in-turkey.html