Turkey’s Syriacs yearn to be able to teach Syriac to their children

The Mor Gabriel Monastery, the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world, is at risk of being taken away from the Syriacs. (PHOTO AA, BARI?KAN ÜNAL)
Turkey’s Syriacs have long been seeking ways to teach their ancient language, culture and religion to their children; they finally asked a court in Ankara to right a wrong and allow them to open schools which would include a Syriac education.

“My family has been living in Anatolia for centuries, but I don’t know Syriac. I wish there were kindergartens that started Syriac language education at an early age,” said Nazan Sö?üt, who has a daughter in the eighth grade and a son in the third grade in ?stanbul.

“We would like to have schools at the kindergarten level in accordance with the Education Ministry’s instructions and with certain hours of language courses in Syriac. We only want to prevent the death of our 5,500-year-old language,” said Ezel Murato?lu, a mother of two children who live in ?stanbul’s Moda district. The battle of Syriacs in the Turkish bureaucracy has failed a number of times in its effort to teach their children their ancient language. In the middle of last year, the local education authority in ?stanbul did not give them permission to open kindergartens that could teach Syriac. The Syriacs then went to the directorate of private schools with the same demand, but to no avail.

“There are a number of regulations preventing these authorities from approving our demand. This happened despite great support from the highest authorities for our right to open such a school,” said Sait Susin, president of the Beyo?lu Virgin Mary Syriac Orthodox Church Foundation, in reference to deputy Prime Minister Bülent Ar?nç’s backing of Syriacs to open their own schools.

“Despite the fact that we have never wanted to seek our rights in court, we had to do it,” he told Sunday’s Zaman recently.

In November of last year, the Syriac community went to the Ankara 13th Administrative Court demanding action against the past decisions of several institutions that declined the community’s education request.

“The court informed us that we cannot give Syriac lessons in schools because we are not a ‘minority;’ we are a ‘primary component’ of this society,” said lawyer Süleyman Bekta?, who is handling the case on behalf of the Syriac community.

Bekta? added that if the Ankara court rejects their demand, then they will do whatever is necessary to pursue all other legal domestic venues. The Syriac community reminded the court that other non-Muslim communities — Armenians, Jews and Greeks — that have “minority” status as described in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, can exercise their rights to education in their own schools, but that Syriac Christians — an ethnic community indigenous to Turkey’s Southeast and some parts of Mesopotamia — cannot.

“Authorities are engaged in double standards in regards to Syriacs. We are not regarded as ‘minorities’ even though we are non-Muslims,” Susin noted. “But when we want to become public officials and high-level office holders in the state and military bureaucracy, then they tell us that we are Christians,” he added. In a country of 73 million people, there are less than 25,000 Syriacs left, about 20,000 of them living in ?stanbul. Most of the Syriacs in ?stanbul live in the districts of Feriköy near Beyo?lu, and in the Ye?ilköy, Florya, Bak?rköy and Moda districts.

There are also Syriacs living in the southeastern province of Mardin, which had belonged to them for centuries. Conflicts, the latest of which was terrorism related to the Kurdish issue in the 1990s, led to their emigration. There are many more Syriacs overseas, and the biggest groups live in India and Sweden, 3 million and 100,000, respectively.

There have been Syriacs who returned to Turkey after repeated calls to return from the highest of Turkish officials, but those who returned are few in number — only about 25 families — who settled in their old villages in Mardin’s Midyat district.

“Turkey is taking steps to improve the rights of non-Muslim groups. We have seen comfort on this land as we have never seen during the history of the Turkish Republic, but most Syriacs feel they are still better off in Sweden,” Susin said.

Syriac church will be a first in the history of Turkey if built

The Syriac community of ?stanbul has long been requesting authorities to allow the building of a Syriac church in the city. The ?stanbul Metropolitan Municipality approved their request in December of last year, allowing the building of a new church for the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic.

Since they have been dwindling in numbers, most of Turkey’s non-Muslim communities do not need new churches to be built as the current functioning churches are enough to support their communities. But the Syriac Christians feel they need a church of their own in ?stanbul since they have had to use other Catholic communities’ churches for their religious practices. “We lease facilities of sister churches, for example Latin Catholic churches, for religious services. Oftentimes, our ritual times clash with theirs,” Murato?lu said.

The ?stanbul municipality is expected to allocate a 2,000-square-meter plot of land in ?stanbul’s Ye?ilköy area to the Syriac Church Foundation for the construction of a church. If the project is brought to completion, it will mark the first time a municipality has allocated a place of worship to a non-Muslim community. The Beyo?lu Syriac Church of the Virgin Mary Foundation is about to present their architectural project for the church to the municipality. There are also other issues, such as discriminatory phrases in history textbooks against Syriacs, awaiting a solution.

In addition, Midyat’s Mor Gabriel Monastery, which has existed for 1,600 years, is at risk of being taken away from the Syriacs. Last year, the Supreme Court of Appeals rejected the Syriacs’ plea to overturn an earlier judgment that gave the land of the Mor Gabriel Monastery to the Treasury.

How the Mor Gabriel problem can be solved has currently been in limbo. The Council of the General Assembly of the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM) has been debating the issue to produce a solution for the last few months.

“We have great expectations for a solution. It can be solved if the government wants it,” Kuryakos Ergün, chairman of the Foundation of the Mor Gabriel Monastery, told Sunday’s Zaman.