Syriacs outline problems to EU, ask for removal of obstacles

syriacs-outline-problems-to-eu-ask-for-removal-of-obstacles-2011-08-03_l1.jpgA Syriac group recently presented a report on the problems of Syriac community in terms of ethnic, linguistic, religious and other rights, as well as the right of return

The total population of Syriacs who emigrated to the European Union numbers around 250,000, according to figures provided by the European Syriac Union, or ESU.

Turkey should remove obstacles preventing Syriacs from returning to the country and provide constitutional protection for their status and identity, according to a Syriac group that presented a report detailing the community’s problems in Turkey to the European Commission last week.

“Our message is clear. The obstacles that lie before the return [of Syriacs to Turkey] must be removed. An atmosphere of trust has to be established. Syriacs did not willingly desert the lands where they lived for centuries. Syriacs sought a solution abroad because they ran out of choices,” David Vergili, a spokesman for the European Syriac Union, or ESU, an umbrella organization that brings together 11 Syriac organizations based in Europe, recently told the Hürriyet Daily News by email.

Last week, the ESU presented a report to the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Enlargement on Turkey detailing a number of problems experienced by Syriacs in Turkey in terms of ethnic, linguistic, cultural, religious and other rights, as well as the right of return. The ESU also addressed the contentious topic of the “Seyfo” – the name Syriacs give to what they claim was genocide perpetrated against them by the Ottomans in 1915. The report is expected to make its way into Europe’s agenda in September.

“The Syriac [community] was plundered during World War I, and [they] were subjected to genocide like other Christian peoples. There are many reasons why no ventures were ever undertaken to seek their rights until this day. Contrary to the official narrative and literature, Syriacs in Turkey could neither become first-class citizens nor take advantage of their rights granted to them by the [Treaty of] Lausanne. Constitutional guarantees must be given back first,” Vergili said.

“The case [of the Syriac Mor Gabriel Monastery in the southeastern province of Mardin] is still underway. The monastery bears great significance for Syriacs. As the European Syriac Union, we recognize that this process is a political, rather than a judicial one. This view is further clarified both by the feudal village guard organization that makes itself felt in the region, as well as by the lack of enthusiasm in Ankara’s attitude. The Mor Gabriel Monastery case is a test of democracy, good will and the project to live together,” Vergili said.

In 2008, the nearby villages of Yayvantepe, Çandarli and Eğlence filed a lawsuit claiming that the 1,700-year-old monastery was occupying the land of adjacent villages. The case is still underway.

“Dozens of villages were evacuated; people were displaced. A huge wave of emigration took place,” Vergili said in relation to the troubles faced by Syriacs during the 1990s when the Kurdish problem was at its height. Many people became the victims of unresolved murders, he added.

‘We left unwillingly’

News about the return of Syriacs in Europe back to Turkey were frequently circulated in the press several years ago, but contrary to expectations, no one has returned, save for a few exceptions, he said.

The total population of Syriacs who emigrated to the European Union numbers around 250,000, according to figures provided by Vergili. The number of Syriacs in Turkey, on the other hand, amount to around 15,000 people, official figures indicate, with most Syriacs being concentrated in Istanbul.

“The nationalist wave mounting across Europe is also affecting us negatively. These problems are mainly issues [we] face in daily life, rather than being systemic [problems,]” Vergili said, adding that the Syriac community stood up against problems not just in Turkey but also in Europe.

The fact that Syriac had entered UNESCO’s list of World Languages in Danger pointed to a vital problem, he added.

“Our community of 15,000 in Istanbul cannot set up schools and has to make do with a single church. Our region has been the center of attraction for repressive, outdated policies of annihilation and denial for decades,” he said.

Turkey’s Syriac community also cannot use their Syriac last names due to the Patronymics Law enacted in 1934, Vergili said. “Syriacs have begun using Turkish names for a lack of any other options.”

A Turkish citizen of Syriac descent, Favlus Ay, filed a lawsuit last year to change his first and last names to Syriac. Ay requested permission to change his last name to “Bartuma” and his first name to “Paulus.” The suit was filed to annul a provision in the Patronymics Law of 1934 that bars Turkish citizens from adopting foreign names. The case was first brought before a court in Mardin’s Midyat district before being passed to the High Court where the appeal was rejected, with eight judges voting in favor and nine against