Turkey may offer citizenship to Syriacs fleeing war in Syria

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been working to provide Syriacs with Turkish citizenship,” Evgil Türker, head of the Federation of Syriac Associations in Turkey said at a conference in Ankara on Syriacs in Syria at the beginning of the week.

Turkey is seemingly preparing, with Turkey’s top government officials having in recent months called on Syriacs to return to Turkey, to offer Turkish citizenship to Syriacs who were or are related to former citizens of Turkey and who are now in a difficult situation in war-torn Syria.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been working to provide Syriacs with Turkish citizenship,” Evgil Türker, head of the Federation of Syriac Associations in Turkey said at a conference in Ankara on Syriacs in Syria at the beginning of the week. Turkey is actually the former homeland of many Syriacs who presently live in Syria and Europe, since, in the past, a large number of Syriacs left the country because they were ostracized by Muslim society due to their religion and were not allowed by the state to enjoy their rights.

According to estimates, out of a total of 2.5-3 million Syriacs living in Syria — Syriacs believe all Christians, apart from Armenians, in Syria to be of Syriac origin based on historical grounds –180,000 live in Syria’s Haseki province, which sits on the Turkish-Syrian border. “Maybe more than 90 percent of them are people whose elders emigrated from Turkey,” Türker told Sunday’s Zaman on the sidelines of the conference “Syrian Syriacs and Turkey: Building Peace Together.” Granting Syriacs Turkish citizenship would not be something unimaginable because Türker’s fathers and grandfathers were formerly registered in Midyat, Mardin province, in the birth registry anyway.

Calls made in previous months to Syriacs living abroad to convince them to return to Turkey, by several leading figures of the government such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu, may be taken as a strong indication of Turkey’s intention of offering citizenship to those Syriacs in Syria who were, or at least whose parents or grandparents were formerly Turkish citizens. A Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity also believes that recent statements made by top government officials may be taken as a sign that Turkey is preparing to take such a step.

As part of efforts to mend fences with the Syriacs of Turkey, Turkish President Abdullah Gül met with leaders of Turkey’s Syriac community at the Çankaya presidential palace in February. For the first time in history, a member of Turkey’s Christian minority, Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Çetin, accompanied a Turkish president on a trip abroad, in particular to Sweden, where a large number of Syriacs live. Davuto?lu, for his part, met with representatives of the Syriac community in Turkey in March and reaffirmed that Turkey was ready to extend help in every way possible to its Syriac brothers in Syria.

Syriacs urge Turkey to adopt a more encompassing discourse, a discourse not solely based on Sunnis, but towards opposition groups in Syria. Tuma Çelik, Turkey representative of the European Syriac Union (ESU), maintained that Turkey has ignored, up until recently, Syriacs in its Syria policy, but he also admitted that there have recently been some positive developments in that regard. Türker is hopeful. “There are indications that Turkey will develop a different attitude [from the one in the past],” he said, adding, “It should also take Christians [in Syria] into account.” Issou Gouriye, leader of the Syriac Union Party, is more cautious in his optimism. “We hear that Turkey has taken some positive steps, but the effects haven’t, as of yet, been felt by us in Syria,” he said at the meeting organized in Ankara.

Although they had, in the past, troubles in living comfortably in Turkey, Syriacs see Turkey as the main actor they could possibly turn to when in trouble and expect to receive greater help from Turkey. “We have lived together for a thousand years. Who else can we lay our expectations on, if not Turkey?” Gouriye, who, having studied at a Turkish university, can speak Turkish fluently, told Sunday’s Zaman. “If Turkey is willing to do its part, there is a lot that can be done together,” he added.

Syriacs, who historically see Syria as their homeland, are probably one of the most adversely affected ethnic and religious groups in the civil war in Syria. Only recently two archbishops from the Syriac Orthodox and Melkite (mostly Greek Orthodox) churches were abducted by gunmen in Aleppo. Syriacs are worried that attacks against Christians aim not only to drive Syriacs out of Syria, land on which they have been living for thousands of years, but also to cause division and conflict among opposition groups fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Syriacs’ fears are not baseless, considering what happened in Iraq. According to Çelik, two-thirds of out of more than 1 million Syriacs in Iraq migrated following the American occupation. For the moment, the total number of Syriacs who fled the civil war in Syria by seeking shelter in a foreign country makes up no more than 1 percent of all Syriacs in Syria. But should the civil war reach the province of Haseki, where a large number of Syriacs live and where there are no major clashes at the moment, the number of Syriacs who may choose to flee the country could significantly increase.

By some estimates, there are presently around 500 Syriacs who have come to Turkey from Syria. But Turkey has been building, in the town of Midyat in Mardin province, a refugee camp for Syriacs with a capacity to accommodate 4,000 people, and another with a capacity of 6,000 people for Kurds and Arabs who might flee to Turkey. It may be out of an expectation that clashes could in the near future reach the Haseki region, which lies along some of Turkey’s border with Syria and which is also densely populated by Kurds, that Turkey is busy with camp building.

As Syria is the only country where Syriacs have a relatively dense population, should Syriacs in Syria, as the ones in Iraq have done in the past, flee the country because of the civil war, the ethnic group will be scattered around the world. That’s why the Federation of Syriac Associations is not willing to give a helping hand to Syriacs of Syria who are trying to emigrate abroad. “The only country where we have now a mass population is Syria,” Türker said, defending the federation’s stance.