Turkey’s Assyrian Question

By: Baskin Oran Translated from Radikal (Turkey).
[Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul smiles during a visit to the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, March 11, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Henrik Montgomery/Scanpix )]

Turkish President Abdullah Gul is someone I admire. He has been “an island of prudence” for the country during the grim period we have been going through. But I was seriously disappointed with his visit to Sweden, to which he took the acting Assyrian Orthodox Patriarch, Yusuf Cetin.
During the visit, an Assyrian member of the Swedish parliament, Yilmaz Kerimo, took the floor and made the following remarks in Turkish: “The Mor Gabriel monastery in Mardin is under occupation. Some churches, among them Hagia Sophia, have been turned to mosques. The Assyrians are not recognized as a minority and cannot benefit from any rights; they cannot learn their language at school.”

Here is how Gul answered: “There were some problems in the past. But, frankly, I cannot agree that all you say is true.”

Kerimo’s remarks, however, were perfectly accurate. Let’s take a look at all the points in question:

1. Gul says, “Our Assyrian citizens do not have minority status under the Lausanne Treaty [Turkey’s founding document].” Ever since 1994, I’ve been writing that the Lausanne Treaty defines the minorities only as “non-Muslims.” The related Article 143 mentions no minority group by name. The argument that only Greeks, Armenians and Jews were considered minorities is a gross lie fabricated by the Turkish nation-state aimed at downsizing the minorities.

“Letter of forfeit” myth

2. Gul says, “Those designated as minorities in the Lausanne Treaty were determined on a voluntary basis at the time.” This is to be found nowhere in the treaty. Gul implies that “the Assyrians forfeited their rights under the Lausanne Treaty,” an argument which is nothing more than an urban legend. The only “document” on the issue is a newspaper report, published in the Feb. 9, 1923, issue of the daily Ileri.

The Assyrian Orthodox Patriarchate was based in Mardin at the time. During a visit to Ankara, Patriarch Ilyas Sakir III said that they “do not want minority rights.”

Here is the reason for those remarks: Western countries wanted to create a Great Armenia to serve as a buffer between them and Communist Russia, and during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference they completely ignored the unassuming Assyrians, who have never had a state throughout history. The Assyrians were left with no other option but to count on the “tolerance” of the Turks, just as they had done since 1071 and continue to do now.

So, what happened as a result? When Ilyas Sakir died in 1932, we exiled the patriarchate to Homs in Syria. And the current situation? We do not allow those people to open schools under Article 40 of the Lausanne Treaty; they cannot teach their language to their children.

Let us pause for a moment here and imagine that a meticulous historian produces a “letter of forfeit” signed and stamped by Ilyas Sakir III. It would be meaningless because:

First of all, ever since the time of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), minority rights are rights “granted to the individual to be used collectively.” It is impossible under international law for community leaders to forfeit those rights on behalf of individuals.

Second, the Lausanne Treaty is an international agreement signed by eight countries and cannot be changed with press remarks made by a spiritual leader. Moreover, Article 37 stipulates that clauses about the protection of minorities amount to a basic law and cannot be amended through laws.

Third, the Turkish state had initially accepted that because the Assyrian minority schools in Mardin continued to function until 1928, when they were closed under the pretext of the unification of education. Moreover, Assyrian minority foundations were formally recognized when they were included on the list that accompanied the cabinet decree of Jan. 24, 2003.

Then how come these myths are still being perpetuated? Firstly, the Assyrians are a very quiet people. Second, our nation has a tradition of making people “surrender” just as it makes people “confess” in police stations. Under Article 42.1 of the Lausanne Treaty, for instance, “The family law of minorities is implemented in line with their traditions and customs.” But when the Civil Code was legislated in 1926, our state created a commission, and its Armenian and Greek members who spoke against forfeiting their rights were detained and kept in custody until a “proper” decision was made. This is how non-Muslims “formally forfeited” their rights under Article 42.1 and gave up church marriages.

I regret to say something even grimmer: Last year we did not exhibit any shame in “formally” ridiculing those Assyrian citizens. They had submitted an application in Istanbul for their schooling right under Article 40 of the Lausanne Treaty. The reply they received on July 26, 2012, said: “You are not a minority but a principal component [of the nation]. Since you are not a minority, you cannot teach in a foreign language in the kindergarten you want to open.” (Sabro newspaper, Sept. 7, 2012)

Usurpation of monastery land

3. Gul further says, “The Mor Gabriel Church is not under occupation. It remains open. There is a dispute related only to surrounding land. And the lawsuit on the issue will undoubtedly be resolved under the principle of the rule of law.”

I’ve written repeatedly on this issue as well. In 2009, the treasury opened a lawsuit over lands registered under the monastery’s proprietorship, however, the court in Midyat rejected the claims. The treasury then went to the Appeals Court, which ruled in favor of the treasury in 2010, on grounds there were no documents to certify the monastery’s proprietorship. The monastery, however, had presented tax payment records of many years to the court in Midyat. While the mystery over the ruling lingered, it emerged that those tax records were absent from the file at the Appeals Court! The Monastery Foundation lodged an appeal, but this merely resulted in rejection!

The number of court cases launched against the Assyrians has now exceeded 300 in the area, where Suleyman Celebi, a parliament member from the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is a clan leader, and has a son heading the local [government-armed] village guard. Kurdish villagers are first occupying monastery land and are then filing lawsuits. In the meantime, they are also tipping off the authorities: “They [the Assyrians] are inciting and agitating the people. They are carrying out all kind of activities to destroy the spirit of national unity and togetherness. Money of unknown origin is flowing here.” Celebi is known also for having said that the thousands of Assyrians who had emigrated from the region did so “for their own pleasure.”

4. Gul also says, “If you go to Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia museum is open for everybody to tour. It is the first time I hear [that churches have been turned to mosques].” Kerimo, however, refers to something else. When the Hagia Sophia in Iznik was re-opened as a mosque in 2011, the head of the Foundations Directorate, Adnan Ertem, said, “The small Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has been re-opened to worship, and this one is now being re-opened, too.” That edifice is now called “the Hagia Sophia (Orhan) Mosque.”

Kerimo refers also to what Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in July 2012: “During the last Eid al-Adha, we opened the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Iznik to worship. Our second good news is, God willing, the re-opening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Trabzon.” Kerimo refers also to the deputy chairman of parliament’s appeals commission, Halil Urun, who said that a significant number of the petitions they received concerned the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul and that “Hagia Sophia should be definitely opened to [Muslim] worship. This is the desire of 75 million people.”

Lastly, President Gul said, “Come to Turkey to see your lands and spend your holidays there. Everyone should take care of their properties.” But what if those properties have been occupied for years by village guards? Who is going to remove them from those properties? Can the Assyrians do that when their lands are still being seized by the treasury on the one hand and by Kurdish villagers on the other?

Gul may be a true statesman, but I wish someone had briefed him on those issues before he went to Sweden.