Assyrians have consistently inhabited the lands now part of modern-day Turkey since the beginning of recorded history. While Assyrians once made up a large ethnic minority under the Ottoman Empire, but following the 1915 Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Genocide, most were killed or expelled. Today, only an estimated 26,000 Assyrians remain. The overwhelming majority reside in Istanbul, while a small population maintains a presence in the southeastern region of the country.
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 The status of minorities in Turkey stems from the outdated 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defines minorities on the basis of religion. The treaty calls for the 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 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. They continue to lack schools at the primary and secondary levels. For years, Assyrians were restricted from establishing social institutions and opening their own establishments. As Turkey continues to seek membership in the European Union, some restrictions on minoritized groups have been uplifted, allowing Assyrians to develop social associations.
Ethnic, religious, and linguistic discrimination continue to exist in Turkey, although conditions have improved in recent years. Turkish state policies have contributed to the erasure of the Assyrian people, as minoritized groups have been subject to assimilationist policies. These restrictions, paired with other insidious forms of persecution and discrimination, have driven tens of thousands of Assyrians into diaspora.
OUR RECOMMENDATIONS: Urge the Turkish Government to formally recognize Assyrians as one of the constituent peoples of Turkey, and to protect the fundamental rights of all Turkish citizens, regardless of ethnicity or faith.
Return of Assyrian properties confiscated by Turkish officials.
Historically, the Turkish government has expropriated religious minority properties. Most recently, in July 2017, Turkish authorities seized approximately 50 properties belonging to the Syriac Orthodox Church in Tur Abdin, claiming their ownership deeds are no longer valid. The properties seized included churches, monasteries, and cemeteries, among them is Mor Gabriel Monastery, the oldest surviving Syriac monastery in the world, built more than 1,500 years ago. 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. The act has since been condemned by the European Parliament. Assyrian appeals to regain ownership of these historically Assyrian sites were initially rejected, but negotiations are ongoing.
OUR RECOMMENDATIONS: Pressure the Turkish government to end the expropriation of property belonging to Assyrians, to return improperly confiscated or otherwise stolen Assyrian properties in Turkey to their rightful owners, and to recognize their ownership deeds as valid regardless of changes in municipalities.
Protection of religious freedom.
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[s] 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.
OUR RECOMMENDATIONS: Press the Turkish Government to return improperly confiscated Christian properties in Turkey. Urge Turkish authorities to honor their international religious freedom obligations, and to protect the fundamental rights of all Turkish citizens, regardless of ethnicity or faith.
Ending arbitrary detentions and restrictions on free speech.
Turkish authorities continue to lead efforts to silence independent media and critics of state policies and patterns of governance. Assyrian human rights activists are routinely detained on charges of terrorism and links with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) without evidence.
Assyrians in Turkey have been wrongly 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."
OUR RECOMMENDATIONS: Protect the fundamental rights of all Turkish citizens, regardless of ethnicity or faith, including freedom of speech and assembly. Pressure Turkish authorities to end arbitrary detentions and protect the independence of the judiciary. Urge the Turkish Government to respect human rights and uphold democratic values, and hold them accountable for its mistreatment of minority communities and oppositional voices.
Equal access to education for Assyrian students.
Assyrians in Turkey do not have a single primary school in the country where they are able to learn their native language, history, and culture. In the absence of such educational institutions, Assyrians are forced to rely on their families and churches to learn their language.
In 2014, Assyrians in Turkey opened their first kindergarten in nearly 90 years, following a legal battle and a June 2013 court ruling granting them the right to open schools. Mor Efrem Kindergarten was built in Istanbul without any financial support from the government. Assyrians in Istanbul have plans to open primary and secondary schools, but are unable to do so without financial support.
OUR RECOMMENDATIONS: Pressure Turkey's Ministry of Education to end discriminatory practices barring Assyrian children from studying in their own language. Urge Turkish authorities to grant permits for proposed Assyrian schools and allocate sufficient funding to build and sustain them.
Recognition of the 1915 Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Genocide.
The Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian Genocide (1915-1923) 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.
Despite overwhelming documentation by historians and condemnation by more than 25 countries, Turkey has failed to acknowledge the genocide, and 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.
OUR RECOMMENDATIONS: Formally recognize the Assyrian Genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey, allied Kurdish tribes, and later the Republic of Turkey which saw the systematic massacre and expulsion of millions of Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians. Pressure Turkey to accept joint responsibility and issue a formal apology to affected communities, offering reparations wherever possible.
Living conditions and well-being of refugees.
Turkey continues to host a large number of refugees and migrants, namely from Syria, but also Iraq and other neighboring countries. It is estimated that there are currently upwards of two million refugees, which include Assyrians, some who fled the war in Syria and others IS terrorism in Iraq. The majority of refugees lack effective protection, access to education, and opportunities for formal employment.
Assyrians are unable to take refuge in UNCHR camps due to safety concerns, as they fear exposure to harassment and assault on the basis of their faith.
OUR RECOMMENDATIONS: Increase aid efforts to refugee communities in Turkey. Stabilize and secure regions in Iraq and Syria to incentivize repatriation.