Turkey’s Syriacs Lay Out Vision for New Constitution

In an unprecedented move, the political and community representatives of the Syriac Christians visited parliament this week to express their demands for a new civil constitution.

The delegation, consisting of representatives of the European Syriac Union (ESU), Federation of Syriac Associations in Turkey, Mezo-Der and the Federation of Syriac People in Germany (HSA), outlined the problems and concerns facing the ancient Syriac community to the Constitutional Conciliation Committee on Monday (February 27th).

“As Syriac community representatives, we emphasised that in the new constitution there should be no reference to an ideological definition of citizenship, but rather all people subject to the country by the bonds of the constitution should be considered as citizens of the Turkish Republic,” Tuma Celik, the representative of Turkey within the ESU, told SES Türkiye.

Unlike the Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Jews — the official minority groups according to the Treaty of Lausanne — Turkey’s remaining 25,000 strong Syriac community is not a recognised minority.

“The main problem encountered by the Syriacs of Turkey is the recognition problem,” Celik said. By being considered “normal citizens” without special recognition as a non-Muslim minority, the Syriacs have had obstacles placed before them in such areas as education in their mother tongue, he explained.

Sabo Boyaci, a leading figure of the Syriac community and editor of suryaniler.com, agrees with him, and said that the Syriacs in Turkey have not benefited from equal citizenship rights.

The last school of the Syriac community in Turkey was closed in 1938. One of the oldest languages of the Middle East, the Syriac’s language Aramaic is currently under UNESCO’s list of World Languages in Danger.

“Only 10% of Turkey’s Syriacs can speak in Aramaic while less than 1% can write it,” Boyaci told SES Türkiye.

Evgil Türker, the head of the Federation of Turkish Syriac Associations, also said that unlike the other non-Muslim groups living in Turkey, the Syriac people have no hospitals, which constitutes discrimination against the community.

“Christian Greeks and Armenians have their own schools and hospitals. We don’t have any school or hospital which can serve our people living in Turkey,” Turker told SES Türkiye.

Concerning the key issue of foundations and property, the community demands the return of their foundation lands as well as lands belonging to churches and individuals that were expropriated or occupied when Syriac people were forced to flee abroad or migrate within Turkey.

Since World War I, there has been a steady population decline in the Syriac’s homeland around Mardin – which now stands around 3,000 — as a result of state policies, discrimination, economic factors and the conflict with the PKK in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Only 10% of the foundations’ properties that had been sold to third parties could be returned to our community,” Boyaci said. “The Syriac people face significant cadastral problems in southeastern Anatolia because when they emigrated from their homeland the lands they left behind were used by others.”

Similar to Turkey’s Armenian and Greek minorities, in January the Syriac community applied for compensation and the return of some estates owned by the minority foundations. The move came following the ratification by parliament of a new Foundations Law last year.

“Those lands had been ours for thousands of years, but when Syriac people emigrated due to a number of reasons, these lands were expropriated. There is wide media coverage for Mor Gabriel monastery, however, we have plenty of similar cases waiting for a definitive solution,” Turker said.

Community representatives say there is a need for specific regulations to resolve such problems, and that the foundations’ estates should be covered by constitutional guarantee.

Community members argue that steps need to be taken to rectify all long-standing problems of the Syriacs and that a new constitution would be a good opportunity to address their demands. They also presented to the Commission a written list of constitutional demands.

“Our main expectation is that the deficiencies of the past are not to be repeated again,” Celik said, adding that the Syriac community should be recognised in the new constitution and related laws.