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A new era for Assyrian political representation

by The Journal of Turkish Weekly. April 15, 2014.

Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 at 05:45 AM UT

Febronia Benno (Akyol)
Febronia Benno, 25, was elected co-mayor of the southeastern city of Mardin with Ahmet Turk, 71, a widely respected veteran Kurdish leader, in the March 30 municipal elections. (Photo: Facebook/Mardin Febronia Benno)
“"What makes me exceptional is that I'm from here and I know the problems, the people, and languages. I will ask people what they need. We will create popular councils and try to solve the problems facing all communities. We'll also deal with problems facing Assyrians, but I'm going to try to serve everyone.”

Febronia Benno

Assyrian Christians are asserting their democratic rights in Turkey after a century of exclusion, with a historic number of Assyrian candidates winning local office just three years after the first Assyrian deputy was elected to parliament.

Februniye Akyol — who prefers to go by her Assyrian name, Febronia Benno — was elected Mardin metropolitan co-mayor. Diba Gabriel and Anto Nuay were elected to Midyat city council, and Gebro Tokus was elected to the city council in Sirnak's Idil town.

Benno, 25, grew up in the multi-ethnic town of Midyat. She told SES Türkiye her close relations with other populations will help her build an inclusive city government.

"What makes me exceptional is that I'm from here and I know the problems, the people, and languages," Benno said. "I will ask people what they need. We will create popular councils and try to solve the problems facing all communities. We'll also deal with problems facing Assyrians, but I'm going to try to serve everyone."

Benno added that the Kurdish rights movement cleared the way for Assyrians to assert their own rights. "Abdullah Ocalan gave Assyrians this opportunity. The idea of having an Assyrian co-mayor came from him," Benno told SES Türkiye. "Frankly, I think it might even be a little bit late for a city like Mardin, where so many diverse peoples live."

Idil city councilman Gebro Tokus was forced to move to Switzerland in 1979. He told SES Türkiye that he no longer needs to hide his identity, and that the success of Assyrian candidates in the local elections is a sign that conditions are improving.

"There are six Assyrians in Idil, though it was very different 40 years ago, when this place was heavily populated by Assyrians. Our numbers were reduced by migration. The BDP asked me to be a candidate, and I accepted," Tokus said.

Tokus added that the 2011 election to parliament of Assryian deputy Erol Dora was a turning point for the population.

"Now, with Febronia Benno, myself, and our friends in Midyat, our numbers are increasing. This is great for us Assyrians, because we're part of this land, and we live here. Issues facing Assyrians will be brought to the political conversation through us. They'll all be discussed more often, whether it's land issues, church issues, or mother tongue issues."

Sezai Temelli, a political science lecturer at Istanbul University, said the increasing political involvement of minority populations will strengthen democracy in Turkey.

"This is important for two reasons. First of all, in Turkey the dominant mode of politics is based on a single-identity understanding. That doesn't change from left to right. This sort of understanding prevents other societal actors from expressing themselves, and prevents their demands from being met. Their problems cannot be solved," Temelli said. "Speaking specifically about the Assyrians, they're most affected by this. They've been overlooked to the extreme. The fact that they had no platform for expressing themselves only made their situation worse."

Temelli added that exclusion of minority populations has prevented political institutions from integrating into society at large.

"This presents us with a democracy problem," he said. "It's often said our country is democratic, but that's not how it is in practice. Democracy is when societal actors can wage their own struggles in the political arena.

The single-identity understanding doesn't allow this, which prevents the democracy and peace issues in Turkey from being settled. For Turkey's problems to be solved, it's extremely important that everyone has equal rights of citizenship and equal opportunity to exercise those rights."

Assyrian societal leaders greeted the election of Assyrian candidates. Evgil Turker, chairman of the Federation of Assyrian Associations, said the population is becoming more expectant and engaged in politics.

"Since the last general elections, the approach of Assyrians has changed. First, an Assyrian was elected to parliament for the first time. Then the BDP adopted policies to include Assyrians in local administration. These things are very important for the region," Turker told SES Türkiye.

"Now, we have different expectations of the BDP," he continued. "If politics can be carried out within the framework of identity, then they should give us a certain contingent. Assyrian candidates should also be discussed with institutions that represent Assyrians. For example, the parliament in northern Iraq reserves five seats for Christians; there should be something similar for Assyrians here."

Barbara Kaplan, an Assyrian housewife from Mardin who migrated to Istanbul, told SES Türkiye "it's great that Assyrians participated in and won local elections with their open identity."

"It was the first time we entered an election comfortably expressing our identity and language. The Peoples' Democratic Party gave us this opportunity. It's great to openly participate in politics with our identity and not face any pressure," she said.

Kaplan added that it will take time for Assyrians to fully join the political arena.

"I believe other Assyrians will understand the importance of this eventually. In the future, I want to see more openly Assyrian politicians. There are people among us who are capable of fulfilling these duties. And I don't want this right only for Assyrians, I want it for all peoples," she said.

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