The Assyrian Policy Institute is deeply concerned by the indictment of Assyrian Priest Sefer Aho Bileçen (who leads Mor Yacoub Syriac Orthodox Monastery) on terrorism charges in Turkey. He was formally indicted on January 16, 2020, however, Turkish authorities withheld the information until February 8, 2020.
Bileçen was arrested along with two others on January 9, 2020 in Tur Abdin, Mardin Province located in southeastern Turkey. He was reportedly accused of providing food and water to members of the military wing of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK). The PKK is a Kurdish militant and political organization founded in Turkey, but operating throughout the region, whose stated mission is to seek greater Kurdish political and cultural rights in Turkey. The PKK has been involved in an armed conflict with the Turkish state for decades, and has been designated as a 'terrorist organization' by Turkey.
API Chairman Jon Koriel said: "We are deeply concerned by the unjustified accusations made against Father Aho, and the damaging message his indictment sends to the rest of the Assyrian community in Turkey. We call on Turkish authorities to drop all charges against him without precondition."
Assyrian human rights activists are routinely detained on charges of terrorism and links to the 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.”
Tur Abdin is a historic Assyrian region located in southeast Turkey. It is currently home to approximately 3,000 Assyrians belonging to various church denominations, namely the Syriac Orthodox Church. Large numbers of Assyrians have been forced into emigration as a result of the conflict between Turkey and the PKK since the 1980s, and the actions of Turkish authorities have created an intimidating atmosphere for those Assyrians who remain.
Update (October 2020): Fr. Sefer "Aho" Bileçen will face trial next month on November 3, 2020, and stands accused of terrorism. His legal counsel says the priest was alone at the monastery when approached by a group of men to whom he offered food and water. He maintains that Fr. Sefer did not know the identity of the men who approached him and was unaware of their affiliations, explaining that he simply provided food and water in a spirit of Christian charity. According to open source reports, the court ruled that journalists will not be permitted to attend the upcoming hearing in November.
Update (November 3, 2020): The trial of Fr. Sefer "Aho" Bileçen scheduled to take place on November 3, 2020 was postponed this morning. A new trial date has been set for January 27, 2021.
Update (January 27, 2021): The trial of Fr. Sefer "Aho" Bileçen scheduled to begin on January 27, 2021 was postponed this morning with the next hearing scheduled for April 2021. If convicted, Fr. Bileçen faces up to 15 years in prison. According to open source reports, the alleged confession of a suspected PKK member remains the key point of evidence against the priest.
Update (April 7, 2021): Fr. Sefer "Aho" Bileçen was found guilty of "supporting a terrorist organization" and sentenced to two years and one month in prison.