Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the ground-breaking ceremony on August 3, 2019 for the construction of the “first new church in Turkey since the founding of the Republic in 1923.” The Assyrian community’s request to build the church on public property was first approved by Erdogan as Prime Minister in 2009. The new church, named Mor Efrem, will serve the local Syriac Orthodox community, who are presently sharing places of worship with other Christian denominations.
At the ceremony, Erdogan stated, “Like all their other issues, meeting the worshipping needs of the Assyrian community, the ancient children of our geography, is the duty of the state of the Republic of Turkey. We are a nation which has been ruling over this region for almost a millennium, and Istanbul for 566 years. Throughout this long history, our region has always been the heart of religious, ethnic and cultural diversity, most importantly of the conscience of humanity.”
He went on to say, “Although the sufferings of the last 150 years in our region have caused many troubles and destructions, we have never allowed even a slightest weakness in our will of coexistence. To us, anyone who has affection for and contributes to Turkey is a first-class citizen.”
Erdogan’s remarks are consistent with the Turkish state’s century-old policy to deny the 1915 Genocide of Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian peoples at the hands of Ottoman Turkey and later the Republic of Turkey. He acknowledges Turkish rule of the lands for nearly a thousand years, but maintains that Turkey has always promoted coexistence, thereby denying its genocidal campaign between 1914 and 1923.
In his speech, Erdogan emphasizes the state’s commitment to meeting the “worshiping needs” of the Assyrian community, who he refers to as the “ancient children of our geography.” While seemingly acknowledging Assyrians as an indigenous community, this rhetoric is belied by Turkish law, which fails to formally recognize Assyrians as an ethnic minority, and the insidious forms of persecution against Assyrians that threaten the community’s survival in the country. It is estimated that only 25,000 Assyrians remain—the overwhelming majority reside in Istanbul, while a small population maintains a presence in the southeastern region of the country.
The Turkish Presidency asserts that the creation of a new church is a sign of prosperity for Assyrians in the country, however, this symbolic gesture does not address the other more pressing issues affecting Assyrians within the modern Turkish state which actively denies their place as equal citizens in the country:
Lack of recognition of Assyrians as an ethnic minority in Turkey. Assyrians are not officially recognized as an ethnic minority in Turkey. The status of minorities in the country stems from the outdated 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defines minorities on the basis of religion. The treaty calls for full citizenship rights for non-Muslims, but Turkey has been violating the Treaty since its adoption. Although they are a Christian minority, they cannot benefit from the rights granted by the Treaty of Lausanne, which Turkey has restricted to Armenians, Jews, and Greeks. This has continually denied Assyrians and other non-Muslim minorities their rights to education in their native language. Up until the establishment of a single kindergarten in 2014, Assyrians had no schools in their mother tongue. They continue to lack immersion schools at the primary and secondary levels. For years, Assyrians were restricted from establishing social institutions and opening their own establishments.
Targeting of independent Assyrian institutions, leaders, and activists. As Turkey, continues to seek membership in the European Union, some restrictions on minoritized groups have been uplifted, allowing Assyrians to develop social associations. However, in the last few years, most Assyrian organizations have been closed. According to locals, the state only permits “loyal” Assyrian institutions to operate. Turkish authorities continue to lead efforts to silence independent media and critics of state policies and patterns of governance. Assyrians in Turkey have been wrongfully imprisoned for speaking about the 1915 Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Genocide, and charged with “inciting racial or religious hatred encouraging people to disobey the law.” Assyrian human rights activists are routinely detained on charges of terrorism and links with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) without evidence: In late 2015, Assyrian community leaders were among thousands imprisoned by Turkish authorities, including Sado Ide Oshana, president of the Association of Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Aramis (AACA). He was accused of terrorism and imprisoned. He was released 14 months later and fled the country. In November 2016, authorities removed Assyrian Mayor Februniye Akyol from office. Akyol had been elected to serve as co-mayor of Mardin two years prior. She was the first Assyrian woman elected to the position of mayor in Turkey, and at the time of her removal was the only Assyrian mayor in the country. In March 2017, Turkish police stormed the home of Yuhanon Aktas, the chairman of an Assyrian organization in Mardin. He was arrested and accused of being a member of the PKK. In early 2018, Turkish authorities arrested Petrus Karatay—an Assyrian who moved back to his ancestral village in Sirnak province after 30 years of living in France—on terrorism charges in response to a statement made to a journalist decrying the conditions for Assyrians in the area. He was later released and quoted saying: “Before I moved [back] here, I and my Assyrian friends spoke with many Turkish officials. They promised we could safely return and would be provided with support in our efforts for building a new life in our indigenous villages. But sadly we see that they are not keeping their promises….My detention and the ensuing slander campaign against me seem to be a message by the government to other Assyrians that they should not return to Turkey.”
Confiscation of Assyrian-owned properties by Turkish authorities. Historically, the Turkish government has expropriated religious minority properties. Most recently, in July 2017, Turkish authorities seized 55 properties belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church in Tur Abdin, claiming their ownership deeds are no longer valid. The properties seized included churches, historic monasteries, and cemeteries, among them Mor Gabriel Monastery—the oldest surviving Assyrian monastery in the world. The stolen properties legally belong to the Assyrian villages in Tur Abdin, but Turkish authorities argue this changed when the region was absorbed into a newly-established municipality in 2014. The legal status of their ownership deeds has since been dissolved. The properties were transferred to Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs. These actions were later condemned by the European Parliament. Assyrian appeals to regain ownership of these historically Assyrian sites were initially rejected. While Mor Gabriel Monastery and other confiscated properties were formally returned in November 2017, other confiscated properties remain under state ownership.
Violations of religious freedom. Despite claiming to be a secular state, in 2013, it was revealed and later confirmed by the Turkish interior ministry that authorities were secretly operating “race codes” that enabled it to collect information about the religious identity of its citizens. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the serious limitations on freedom of religion that the Republic of Turkey continues to impose “threaten the continued vitality and survival of minority religious communities in Turkey.” Assyrians and other non-Muslim minorities maintain that they are routinely exposed to discrimination and harassment on the basis of their religion. Municipal codes mandate that only the government can designate a place of worship. Because Assyrians do not have legal standing in the country, they may not be eligible for a designated site. Turkish police have occasionally prohibited Christians from conducting services on private property, and sometimes charge Christians for holding “unauthorized gatherings.” Additionally, Christians cannot legally train clergy in Turkey. In principle, Assyrians should be covered by laws guaranteeing freedom of religion. However, because Assyrians lack legal status, they are sometimes not protected under these laws. The Assyrians and other Christian communities continue to face the confiscation of places of worship, which are often times declared “unused” by Turkish authorities and sometimes converted into mosques.
Denial of the 1915 Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Genocide. The Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Genocide (1914-1923) was a genocide in which the Ottoman Turkish Government, aided by its collaborators, systematically murdered and expelled upwards of two million Christian Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. At least 300,000 Assyrians were killed—a figure which represents more than half the entire Assyrian population at the time. Despite overwhelming documentation by historians and condemnation by more than 25 countries, Turkey has failed to acknowledge the genocide and offer reparations to affected communities. Instead it has actively sought to obstruct research and efforts promoting awareness, and has yet to be held accountable for its crimes. More than a century later, Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians around the world continue to demand a just international resolution. Earlier this year, the Turkish Foreign Minister condemned official French and Italian recognition of the genocide, which he referred to as the “disputed 1915 events between Turkey and Armenia” and called it an “abuse of history and the law.”
We call on Turkish authorities to:
Formally recognize Assyrians as one of the constituent peoples of Turkey and protect the fundamental rights of all Turkish citizens, regardless of ethnicity or faith;
End the expropriation of property belonging to Assyrians and return improperly confiscated or otherwise stolen Assyrian properties in Turkey to their rightful owners, and recognize their ownership deeds as valid regardless of future changes in municipalities;
Honor international religious freedom obligations;
Cease the harassment and arbitrary arrests of Assyrian activists. Allow independent Assyrians to participate in public affairs without fearing retribution for holding opposing political views;
Cease the repression of Assyrian political and civil society organizations. Allow these organizations to operate freely and without fear;
End the discriminatory practices barring Assyrian children from studying in their mother tongue. Grant permits for proposed Assyrian immersion schools and allocate sufficient funding to build and sustain them;
Formally recognize and accept joint responsibility for the Assyrian Genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey and later the Republic of Turkey which saw the systematic massacre and expulsion of millions of Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. Offer reparations to affected communities wherever possible.