Syriac diaspora wants to enjoy rights in their homeland

Representatives of Sweden’s Assyrian Federation and Syriac Federation and members of ?stanbul’s Syriac Church met with President Gül last week in Ankara. (PHOTO aa, MEHMET DEM?RC?)
It is a heartbreaking paradox that Syriacs residing in Sweden are active members of the society in a country far from their homeland, but they still can’t exercise many of their rights in Turkey’s Southeast, where their ancestors made their home for thousands of years, according to leaders of Sweden’s Syriac community, who visited Turkey last week in a program that included a meeting with President Abdullah Gül.

In addition to representatives of Sweden’s Assyrian Federation and Syriac Federation, members of ?stanbul’s Syriac Church also met with President Gül last week in a visit that comes about a month after Turkish EU Affairs Minister and chief negotiator Egemen Ba??? visited Sweden, where he told local Syriac community leaders that their problems would be solved once Turkey enters the EU — a disheartening promise for the diaspora.

Sweden is home to some 100,000 Syriacs, higher than their numbers in Turkey according to some figures. Syriacs are an ethnic community indigenous to Turkey’s Southeast and other parts of Mesopotamia. However, many migrated starting in the 20th century, leading to the presence of wide-scale diaspora communities in Europe and other places. The migrations were triggered by a combination of factors, including an alleged genocide at the hands of the Ottomans in the early 20th century and turmoil in the Middle East in general. Today, Turkey is taking steps to improve the rights of non-Muslims groups, but the country’s Syriacs feel they are still better off in Sweden.

“Our roots in southeast Turkey go back thousands of years. Our identity is entrenched in that place. We believe that if we could feel safe in Turkey and if we were treated with respect, many of our people would return to Turkey,” said Afram Yakoub, head of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden, who also visited Today’s Zaman’s offices during his visit to Turkey last week. Hobi Rhawi and Nail Yoken, two other members of the federation, accompanied him. Yoken is also head of the Swedish football club Assyriska Föreningen, which was founded by Syriac immigrants.

Yakoub himself has roots in Mardin’s Midyat area. His great grandfather fled violence in 1915 and sought refuge in Qamishli, Syria, before the family eventually migrated to Sweden.

However, the time for Syriacs to feel completely at home, ironically in their own home, hasn’t yet come. In fact, many Syriacs from Europe returned to Turkey in the mid-2000s, but instead of welcoming arms, they were met with an attempt by the Turkish state to seize the Mor Gabriel Monastery in Midyat — a Syriac church in the region that has existed for 1,600 years in 2005. The attempt is still ongoing, and Turkey’s Syriacs have vowed to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The monastery is one of the most distressing problems Syriacs face in Turkey, a topic that also came up during the meeting with President Gül.

The meeting with the president went well, Yakoub said, but he also expressed skepticism that the positive talks would ever translate into concrete steps in practice. He also said that until very recently, his federation has been unable to find a partner in Turkey to carry on constructive dialogue with, but noted that this was changing, which he said is an encouraging development. He said his federation would cut down on its frequent demonstrations and protests against the Turkish state if they could establish better dialogue. “We can certainly change our approach,” he said.

But what do Yakoub and other Syriacs want from Turkey? “We have so many churches in Sweden, we have no problems. We have politicians at the local and parliamentary level, in social and political circles. It is absurd that we shouldn’t have these freedoms in the land where we come from,” Yakoub said, noting that exercising these freedoms is all they want. “In Sweden, we feel respect. I can be taught in my mother tongue. We have five to six deputies in the congress who are Syriacs. In fact, we are one of the most active groups in the country. Why can’t we have this in Turkey?” he asked.

It is not clear why, but it is a fact that Turkey’s Syriac community is facing a number of issues such as their inability to open schools providing education in the Syriac language, difficulties with opening churches, official recognition of their ethnic identity and ongoing problems regarding property that has been seized by the Turkish state. They were recently allowed to open a new church in ?stanbul, but the land allocated is on property that belongs to an Italian Catholic church, which some say was done purposefully to play these groups off against each other. This and other issues come up as recurring topics in meetings with officials, but most of them remain unsolved.

Syriac Christians are also at a disadvantage because they cannot exercise many of the rights enjoyed by other non-Muslim communities that have “minority” status as described in Articles 37-44 of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923. No Turkish official so far has promised a solution to this legal problem.

The issue of Mor Gabriel, which was recently handed over to the Treasury, can go deeper than losing the monastery grounds. What Syriacs fear is that its loss might lead to further property losses, something not unheard of in a country that has in the past periodically seized property from non-Muslim groups. Other issues such as discriminatory phrases in history textbooks against Syriacs also await a solution. Apart from specific issues, the past century in the Middle East has been unkind to Syriacs, a people deeply connected to their homeland, and it will take a long time and real action on the part of the governments of the region to regain their trust.