Syriac Church Foundation donates YTL 100.000 to National Solidarity Campaign. 1915 mixed feelings

Istanbul, ܛܘܪ ܥܒܕܝܢ – The Syriac Orthodox Church Foundation this week reported a donation of 100 thousand Turkish lira (ca. €14 thousand euro) to the National Solidarity Campaign launched by President Erdoğan. Turkish President Erdoğan launched a campaign this Monday to raise money from civil organizations for those suffering from the novel coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic. For this fundraising campaign, religious, cultural, and minority rights foundations in the country received a letter asking for their support and participation in a campaign initiated by the president. President Erdoğan himself is reported to have donated seven months of his salary to the solidarity initiative.

The İstanbul Süryani Kadim Vakfı, the Syriac Church Foundation affiliated with the Syriac Orthodox Bishopric in Istanbul and which administers the Syriac churches in the city, said on its Twitter account; “We support the campaign against the COVID-19 outbreak launched by our President with a donation of YTL 100.000 on behalf of the İstanbul Süryani Kadim Vakfı. We pray for a quick end of the epidemic, ask God’s mercy for those who passed away and urgent healing to patients.” The Ecumenical Greek Orthodox Patriarchate which has it headquarters in Istanbul is reported to have donated YTL 300.000.

1915 mixed feelings

In times of crisis it is paramount for a nation to join and work together in solidarity to overcome the faced human and social difficulties. In the case of Syriacs however the solidarity campaign evokes mixed feelings and question marks. In a Twitter commentary to the Syriac Foundation’s donation, independent journalist and Platform Tur Abdin administrator Adnan Challma Kulhan expresses these mixed feelings by commenting that the Turkish authorities “can start with returning the lands of the Mor Gabriel Monastery in southeast Turkey. That is, to begin with. Then, how about our Syriac priests’ salaries. Why are they not treated in the same manner as the salaries of Imams?”

And only recently did this website report on attacks and the destruction of Yazidi graves in Nusaybin and how the Diyarbakir municipality “forgot” to sanitize the Syriac church and Alewite Cemevi in Diyarbakir while it did sanitize the cities mosques for coronavirus. Another recent case were the arbitrary arrests over vague charges of Sefer Bilecen, a Syriac monk residing in the Mor Yakup Monastery in the Tur Izlo region of Tur Abdin, the mayor of the Syriac village of Arkah Yusuf Yar and Musa Tastekin from the Syriac village of Sederi. Yusuf Yar was later deposed as AKP mayor of his village.

In its annual report on the situation of Syriacs in Turkey, the European Syriac Union states that society in Turkey is a society in which indigenous non-Turkic minorities and non-Muslim components face alienation and hate crimes. The non-governmental Syriac representative body expressed great concern over what it calls the highly polarized Turkish society and said that during 2019, the Turkish AKP government tried to benefit and use minority and religious groups including the Syriac community for their broader political and military ambitions.

According to Evgil Türker, human rights defender and head of the Federation of Syriac Associations (SÜDEF) in Turkey, the incidents mentioned above are not arbitrary but systematic and constitute a policy of “Turkification”; being equal under the Turkish constitution, but where the Turkish Republic never applied this principle to its Syriac citizens.

In an interview with human rights NGO the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, Türker says that this “Turkification” policy was first implemented by the Turkish Republic after its foundation in 1923 and continued targeting Syriacs throughout history. The imposition of the Wealth Tax in 1942, which particularly targeted non-Muslim citizens, the Istanbul Pogrom of 1955, as well as anti-Christian sentiment following the Turkish intervention of Cyprus in 1974 are just some examples. The European Syriac Union in its 2019 report on Turkey reports 45 murders on Syriacs in the Tur Abdin region between 1987 and 1998 which need clarification. Most of these cases still await full investigation and/or arrests of the perpetrators.

“Because we are both of a different religion and a different race, the Turkish government understood we couldn’t be assimilated, so we were forced to flee again,” Türker said. Syriacs and other non-Muslim minorities had limited opportunities and it was nearly impossible to rise through the ranks in bureaucratic jobs—a trend that continues today. Because of these Turkification policies and the subsequent discriminatory measures, Syriacs felled compelled to leave their ancient homeland Tur Abdin. Their number in Tur Abdin has dwindled to a couple of thousands today and a somewhat larger, but not that much larger, community in Istanbul.