Assyrians in Turkey: Disappearance of a Culture?
Last year, as some of you may know, a conference entitled "Portraits of Christian Asia Minor" was held at Macquarie University. The Conference was attended by the Turkish Consul who, reportedly, after the conference requested a meeting with Senator John Nimrod, from the U.S., who is also, President of the Assyrian Universal Alliance. The Consul expressed his regret for what had happened in the past, explaining that the Turks are trying to turn a new page with the Assyrians. He advised that he is personally working to establish contact and good relations with the Assyrians.
I am reporting this here because I think it is important that a representative of the Turkish government expresses these thoughts, and I thought it would be preferable to start on a positive note. Nevertheless, no major changes have been noted in the Turkish government’s attitude towards the Assyrian since then.
Before we examine the situation of the Assyrians-Surianis in Turkey, it is important to first look at the political and policy framework in which they lived. When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923 the new state inherited a mosaic of ethnic groups. With the exception of the Kurds, none of the ethnic minorities showed any political aspirations. The number of Arabs in Turkey remained small until the annexation of Hatay by Turkey, in 1939, and the smaller Muslim groups, such the Lazes and Circassians, had neither the desire for territorial independence nor the capacity to attain it.
As for the Christian population, the great majority of the Greeks had left the country and those who remained (about 200,000), knew that there would never be another effort to ‘liberate’ them.Those Armenians who survived the 1915 massacre and remained in Turkey (about 100,000) posed no threat for the new state. The “Nestorians” or the “Assyrian tribes”, like so many of the Armenians, fled the country. About 200,000 Assyrians were left in Turkey (that is members of the Syriac Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean and Apostolic Church of the East).
The Assyrians had their hopes dashed by the Lausanne Treaty, which did not specify any special rights for the Assyrians living in Turkey. This exclusion from the Lausanne Treaty has been crucial, as it became the cornerstone of the Turkish government attitudes towards the Assyrian population. It allowed the Turkish state to formulate a consistent and coherent policy of denying any rights for the Assyrians, continually referring to the Treaty and pointing out that there are no other minorities in Turkey as though this was a physical reality and not a construct of the Lausanne Conference. In essence the misuse of the Lausanne Treaty has been a convenient tool to deny Assyrians any rights in the Turkey Republic.
Once Atatürk proclaimed the Turkish Republic, his next step was to establish the ideological premises upon which the state would be based. It was asserted that everyone living in Turkey was a Turk. The state went a step further by stating that all peoples in the world were in fact Turks and all languages derived from Turkish, even Ancient Greek or Chinese or Syriac for that matter. These were the so-called Sun-Language Theory(Güne?-Dil Teorisi) and the Turkish History Thesis (Türk Tarih Tezi). The Council for Research into Turkish History, consisting of four academics and six parliamentarians, which showed the extent to which the two were intermingled, produced a book entitled Türk Tarihinin Ana Hatlar? (Main Points in the Turkish History). In this book, the History Thesis is explained where it was asserted that civilisations of "Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, China, Ægean, [and] Roman" were established by Turks.
In June 1932 in the First Congress of Turkish History, the Minister for Education (Maarif Vekili) opened the Congress by maintaining that when the rest of the world was in caves, the Turks of Central Asia were already using wooden and metal tools and cultivating the soil. According to his thesis, by 7000 BC the Turks had already developed farming and pastoralism, discovered gold, copper, tin and iron and migrated from their homeland to form, no less, the Chinese, Anatolian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Mediterranean, Roman and Etruscan civilisations.
While the ‘history thesis’ reached ridiculous proportions, the intention behind it can easily be seen. Atatürk did not want to use either the Ottoman past or Islam as an ideological premise of the Turkish state. Instead, the pre-Islamic Turkic past was glorified and promoted.According to the official thesis, pure Turks came from Central Asia and although it was asserted that everyone living in Turkey was a Turk, it seems that some were more Turks than others because they originated in Central Asia. This illogical pseudo-historical thesis gradually faded away. However, as Turkish sociologist Ayhan Aktar points out, during the whole period of one-party regime of CHP the state discriminated against any groups which it could not Turkify. During this period the state clearly attempted to assimilate minorities.
On 30 September 1930, Justice Minister Bozkurt, as reported in Milliyet, said: The Turk is only master in his country.Those who are not pure Turks have one right in the country: the right to be servants, the right to be slaves. In 1932 a law was passed that restricted certain professions to Turks only. A similar law, much harsher than comparable laws existing in other countries, continues today to restrict many occupations to Turks only.In 1938-40 the "Citizen, speak Turkish!" (Vatanda? Türkçe konu?) campaign began and there were reportedly frequent assaults against non-Turks.This constituted the denial of the right to speak one’s language in public. In cases where people did not the knowledge of Turkish, it amounted to not speaking in public at all.
During the Second World War, in which Turkey did not take place another blow to minorities was delivered in the guise of a “Wealth Tax". The government, headed by Rü?tü Saracoglu, was strapped and desperate for cash. Taxes were the answer. But the tax that Saracoglu came up with was to serve another purpose than to simply help restore the Treasury's depleted resources. It was also to further the aim of "Turkifying" the nation that began in the 1930s.
In September of 1942, the Prime Minister Saraco?lu ordered a "census".The intelligence organisation of the time, National Security, gather the information necessary for the Finance Ministry to designate each citizen of Turkey as Muslim (M), non-Muslim (G), "converts" (D; for dönme, a Turkish word that has connotations more of "turncoat" than sincere believer) and foreigner (E; Ecnebi).
The Wealth Tax was instituted on 12 November 1942. The reported figures on payments vary widely, with some saying that Muslims paid from 5 up to 25 percent tax, while the non-Muslim paid from 50 percent, scaled up to Armenians, who paid the highest tax at 236 percent - a mathematical impossibility. Turkish researcher R?dvan Akar call this tax "a financial genocide". Those who could not pay this tax were sent to labour camps in A?kale, near Erzurum, to work on the railroads. Twenty-one people lost their lives there. It should be added that even the administrator of the tax, Faik Ökte thought it unfair.
Let’s look at the Assyrian population specifically, which survived under these sorts of policies.From the very beginning of the Republic, the Suryani population faced an uncertain future. In 1922, in the Cilician Region, the Turks granted “permission ... to all Christians” to leave Turkey, which as Joseph notes, created yet another flight of refugees in panic. A large number of Syriac Orthodox and Chaldeans fled in the period of 1921-22 and brought to an end their centuries-old residence in Adana and especially Urfa, the Ancient Edessa.
Outside Cilicia, following the Kurdish Seikh Said uprising, Syrian Orthodox were subjected to harassment by authorities, on the grounds that some Syrianis collaborated with the Kurds. Villages were pillaged and atrocities were committed. Mass deportation took place. Patriarch Mar Ignatius Elias III was expelled from Dayr al-Zafaran monastery which was turned into a Turkish barrack. The patriarchal seat was then transferred to Homs temporarily.
Following the conclusion of the Kurdish uprising and the stabilisation of the Republican regime, the monastery was returned to its rightful owners and some normalcy was restored in the area of Tur’Abdin. However, the death of Atatürk in 1938 brought about a new wave of oppression.As a result, mass migration to Syria and Lebanon took place. The Menderes government in the 1950s again brought about some stability to the region, but Tur’Abdin remained a restricted area until 1965.
From the late 1960s to the 1970s migration to Istanbul and to Europe started which continued in the next three decades. In 1974 the invasion of Cyprus gave rise to hostility against Surianis as well, which sped up the process of their migration. The final period in which the elimination of the Assyrian cultures in Turkey occurred was the years of the civil war between Turkey and the Kurds, starting from 1983. This period nearly put an end to a four millennia presence of indigenous cultures of Anatolia. This was the result of the process which started nearly from the establishment of the Republic and before.
The period from 1983 to 1999 has once again been a devastating period, perhaps the last such period for the Assyrians living in the South East. The civil war between PKK and the Turkish state has had detrimental effect on the Surianis who continued to leave the area and the country altogether.
During this period they found themselves in the crossfire, to use a metaphor. Many Assyrians were murdered, villages were evacuated, confiscated or burned to the ground and villagers were subjected to continuous harassment including abduction of young girls and other atrocities. The local Christians found themselves harassed by their Muslim neighbours be it Turks or Kurds, by the local traditional authorities such as the aghas, by local government authorities, by the police and the gendarme (jandarma) and by Islamic fundamentalists, Hizbollah (“the Party of God”).
In Tur'Abdin four Churches have been destroyed, including Mar Sobo in Arbay, which was built in the 7th century, 41 churches shut down, three converted into mosques and 1 converted into a barn. The same fate befell churches in Siirt, Bitlis, Van, Hakkâri, Urfa, Ad?yaman and Diyarbak?r.Villages confiscated were Sar?köy (Gawayto), Yukar? Dera (Umra Ellayta), A?a?? Dera (Umra Tahtayta) and Ko?ral? (Hassana).
These atrocities are well documented but far too many to enumerate fully in this paper. The accumulated result of all these is that we are witnessing the disappearance of the Assyrian cultures in Turkey. The total number of Assyrians in Turkey is approximately 4 to 5000.The future in Tur’Abdin is certainly dim; perhaps there will be presence of Assyrians in Istanbul for years to come. However, in the traditional homeland another piece of the so-called colourful mosaic, to use the parlance of Turkish politicians, is definitely chipping away.
Surianis today cannot become civil servants; they cannot attend military schools, become officers in the army or join the police. They have no primary schools or any other social institutions as this is prohibited, and have no right to teach their language. To this, one should add the fact that since 1980 their children are under an obligation to attend religion classes in school, which consist of lessons about Islam.
In 1992 a group of representatives from Sweden’s Confederation of Immigrant Organisations (SIOS) visited Turkish politicians, from the newly formed coalition of Centre-right and social democrats. A coalition that promised to change attitudes towards ethnic minorities.One politician they visited was Fikri Caglar, Minister of Culture, at the time. He told the group that “Turkey is not a race-based republic. In Turkey there are 27 ethnic groups. Among them the Armenians, Surianis, Chaldeans and others. We are against oppressing other ethnic groups” and he spoke against “[nationalistic] chauvinism” and he concluded, “We want to create a multicultural society.”
This was very encouraging, although it was not matched by any policy to substantiate such statement. Furthermore, in the same visit when the group met with the Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel they heard him say: “We do not have minority problems.... We do not have minority problems because 99.9 per cent of the population is Muslim.This was specified in the Lausanne Treaty that is even the Muslims who are not Turks, they are first class citizens.”
The inference here is that those who are not Muslims, that is the Christians, the Jews and the Yezidis are second-class citizens. It is not clear whether this was what Demirel wanted to convey to an international group of visitors but unfortunately there is a mountain of evidence, some cited in this paper, that perhaps in error for once he spoke the truth as indeed non-Muslims are regarded as second-class citizens. It should be pointed out though, that not all Muslim citizens are regarded first class citizens if one mentions the Kurds, the Alevis or even Sunni Turks or anyone else who speaks up.
The First Secretary of the Foreign Affairs Department, Onur Öymen in an interview he gave to Milliyet in 1995 talked about the likelihood of an independent Kurdish state being founded in Northern Iraq. Öymen dismissed the possibility which was hardly surprising, but interestingly made the valid point that Northern Iraq is not purely Kurdish, since other ethnic groups such as Chaldeans and Assyrians also live there: “we can’t assume that these groups do not exist and only talk about Kurds.”
This is a comment of a civil servant of high standing who would only speak within the framework of the official policy of the government of the day. It is interesting because a Turkish government representative recognises the Assyrians of a neighbouring country, even he speaks up for them, while the same government ignores the pleas of its own minority of the same ethnic group. It is hypocritical to say the least, using the Assyrians as an excuse to deny the Kurds a state. It does sound like the much-tested ‘divide and rule policy’ in operation again.
In the last few years some improvements in the way the authorities view ethnic groups have been noted. The main reason behind this seems to be a drive towards attracting tourists to such areas of Turkey as Tur'Abdin where normally not many tourists go.
Internet sites such as for Siirt, Mardin and Hakkâri mention Mesopotamian cultures and their contribution to civilisations which is encouraging but people of those cultures living there as bearers of these cultures that are celebrated as "past" cultures rather than living cultures which should be appreciated and respected. Nevertheless, this still represents a departure from the past practice of lumping together all culture under the banner of "Anatolian cultures". It is not sufficient, however, just to mention the cultures on the Internet, perhaps for the sake of tourism.Rather, necessary measures must be taken to arrest the tide of migration to Europe.
Let us see the issue of tourism, specifically the so-called "Faith Tourism" (?nanç Turizmi) which has been heavily promoted of late. Let us look at some examples from the Turkish press. Funda Özkan from Yeni Yüzy?l points out the booklet produced by Urfa city authorities entitled “the City of Prophets”, hardly mentions any cultures other than Turkish. She also wonders what kind of tourism can you have when four churches were converted to mosques and one to carpet factory.
Edip Emil Öymen from Milliyet comments that perhaps Turkey may yet manage to bring tourists to such areas as Mardin if only because of the existence of Syrian monasteries and churches, but with the proviso that, she adds sarcastically “nobody will explain to tourists that we oppress Surianis”.
According to Hüseyin Elçi, those "who migrate from Mardin and Midyat they do not emigrate to Istanbul but to Europe". There is an important reason for that; it is the pressure created by the compulsory religion classes in schools. If you force Christian children to learn Islamic canonical prayers they will go to Europe …. It is a tragedy." Of course, this is not the only reason they leave Turkey but at least the Turkish mass media recognises the injustices towards a minority, which is forced to leave the country.
Recently a report was written by Gürsel Demirok, from the High Co-ordination Board for Human Rights regarding the issue of satisfying the Copenhag Criteria on human rights, which is a pre-condition for membership of the European Union. Not reacting favourably to this report the National Security Council (NSC) also produced its own. This was only leaked to the press in the past week or so. A section of the NSC’s report states “the problem of minorities and their rights have been resolved with the Lausanne Treaty, according to which the minorities that exist in Turkey are the Greeks, Jews, Armenians and Bulgarians”. That contradicts the promise that the good Consul gave regarding the change of attitude towards Assyrians when they are not even mentioned as a distinct minority.
 'Portraits of Christian Asia Minor’, Zenda, Vol.5, No. 26, 4 October 1999.
 I am indebted to Dr Gabriele Yonan who pointed out to me, during the conference, the common fallacy that the Lausanne Treaty specified any ethnic groups at all. In fact, the Treaty's articles which deals with minorities refers only to "non-Muslim" minorities.
 ?.Be?ikçi, Türk Tarih Tezi ve Kürt Sorunu, [Turkish History Thesis and the Kurdish question], Stockholm, 1986, p.6 [Be?ikçi's account is the most comprehensive analysis of the two theses. Be?ikçi is a Turkish Kurdologist whose studies on the Kurds led him to jail countless of times.]
 ibid., p.20.
 ibid., p.95.
 A.Akta?, Varl?k Vergisi ve 'Türkle?tirme' Politikalar?, [The Wealth Tax and 'Turkification' Policies], ?stanbul, 2000, p.102.
 Akta?, op.cit., p.145.
 R.Akar, A?kale Yolculari [passengers of A?kale], Istanbul, 1999. p.9.
 For a comprehensive account of these events see Akar, op.cit.
 See F Ökte, The Tragedy of the Turkish Capital Tax, Croom Helm, London, 1987.
 J. Joseph, Muslim-Christian relations and Inter-Christian rivalries in the Middle East, Albany, 1983, p.101.
 Joseph, op.cit., pp.102.
 H.Anschüz, 'Die Syrichen Christen', Hujådå, Vol. 15, No.1, Jan 1992, p.24.
 H.Soysü, Kavimler Kap?s?-1, Kaynak Yay?nlar?, ?stanbul, 1992.p.81.
 S.Y?ld?z, 'SIOS'un Türkiye'ye E?itim Gezisi', Hujådå, Vol. 15, No.9, Jan 1992, p.25.
 ibid., p.30.
 For example see O.Çal??ar, 'Yitik tarihin izinde', Cumhuriyet Dergi, 8 November 1998, pp.9-11.
 F Özkan, 'Kiliseyi atölye yapanlarla inanç turizmi nas?l olur?', Yeni Yüzy?l, 13 June 1998.
 E.E. Öymen, 'S?ra Turizm yat?r?mc?lar? derne?inde', Milliyet, 15 June 1998.
 E.Güler, 'Süryanilerin izinde', Cumhuriyet Dergi, 6 June 1999, p.18.
 Also see ?.Ç.Nusaybin, 'Süryaniler göçüyor', Hürriyet, 12 July 1999.
 Eleftherotypia, 26/6/00, ‘Ankira’, Ari Ampatzi.