SÜDEF Chairman Evgil Türker: “Our problems are the same as those of Turks, Kurds and other peoples.”

Evgil Türker answers our questions

Muzaffer Demirsoy

@DemokratHaber – Under the motto “We have something to say”, I meet individuals and organizations active in the human rights field. In this seventh interview of the series, we meet Evgil Türker, chairman of the Syriac associations in Turkey SÜDEF (Süryani Dernekler Federasyonu). We discuss Syriac history, language, traditions and the Syriacs’ darkest day, the Sayfo Syriac genocide.

Contrary to common belief, Syriacs are not a religious group but a people. Therefore, I want to ask you: who are the Syriac people? Are Assyrians, Nestorians, Arameans, Chaldeans also Syriacs?

It is true that Syriacs are not a religious group. Syriacs are a people with a history that goes back well into ancient times. Syriacs are a continuation of the Babylonians, Assyrians and Arameans. The word or name Syrian (ed. or the currently used variant: Syriac) is derived from the name Assyria. Syriacs are the first people who accepted Christianity. Arameans, Assyrians, Babylonians and Chaldeans who converted to Christianity began calling themselves Syriacs. So now we generally call ourselves Syriacs.

You asked “whether Assyrians, Chaldeans are Syriacs?” Yes, they are Syriacs. No one used the name Assyrian to identify himself any more after conversion to Christianity. That is, until 150 years ago when the English came to Mesopotamia as colonizers. Archaeologist Henry Layard discovered the Nineveh palace and excavated many historical sites, monuments and artifacts belonging to the Assyrian empire. He told the people living there that they were descendants of the Assyrians after which they started using the name Assyrian again. In particular Nestorians call themselves Assyrians. Patriarch Nestorius was excommunicated at the council that took place in Istanbul in 451 where the church discussed the God-man being of Jesus Christ. In other words, Nestorians are successors to Nestorius.

Mesopotamia was a region divided between two great powers. Some parts belonged to the Byzantines and others to the Persians. Those who lived under Persian rule mostly embraced the teachings of Nestorianism and they began to be called Eastern Syriacs, Chaldeans or Nestorians. And those who lived in the western part of Mesopotamia began to be called Jacobites or Western Syriacs. We do not use those terms anymore. We only use Assyrian, Syriac or Chaldean. To summarize, whatever one calls himself is up to him but, in our eyes and in everyone’s eyes, we are one and the same people.

Would you be able to provide some general information about the Syriac faith?

Syriacs are Christians. They have been divided into many denominations. The first division took place with the excommunication of Nestorius in 451. There are Syriac Catholics too. They are based in Mardin. The Syriac Catholic Church still exists and is affiliated with the Catholic Church.

And then there are the Syriac Orthodox. The Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch is the first established church in Christianity. It has members all over the world, from India to America. Syriacs, through their Christianity, have developed an impressive and great monastic culture and have contributed immensely to Christianity in terms of science, philosophy, language and history. They have contributed in many ways. Great philosophers have developed within the Syriac Church.

Then there are Syriac Protestants. The Syriac Protestant church came into being at the end of the 19th century. They are Syriacs and use the Syriac language. The Maronites in Lebanon and the Greek Orthodox in Syria are also Syriacs.

Are Syriacs allowed and able to teach, read and write in their mother tongue; in Turkey, in the world? Can they speak their native language? Is Syriac one of the threatened languages in the world?

Syriacs still speak their language in the world. In Turkey however, we officially still have no schools of our own. We try to teach and learn our religion and language in our churches and monasteries.

Syriacs were counted among the ethnic minorities under the Lausanne Treaty, but they were not allowed to exercise their rights as a minority. Our existing schools were closed. In 1928 our schools, which were located in Istanbul, Mardin and Adana, were closed again. In 2013, an attempt was made to open a kindergarten in Istanbul. But they told us that we were not allowed to open a school. That is why we took legal measures. After the legal process and court case, the court said:

“Syriacs are a minority within the framework of the Lausanne Treaty and they must be allowed to exercise their rights accordingly and thereafter.”

And the court granted the Syriacs the right to open the kindergarten. It is however only a kindergarten. We have no other schools in Turkey while the use and knowledge of the Syriac language in Turkey has really weakened a lot. This is a threat. If we cannot systematically open schools, from kindergartens up to high schools, to educate our children, then our ancient language will slowly disappear.

There are some Syriac schools abroad, but one can question and doubt how much they can fulfill the task and the need of a people. In Lebanon there is an official school. In Damascus there is a religious school to facilitate the education of the clergy.

But there is no structural effort.

The last couple of years, Syriac education has begun in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, but how efficient and developed are these schools? They need to be strengthened and financially supported.

The Telkari art (silversmithing) that Syriacs have practiced for hundreds of years. The traditional printing art last practiced by Nasra Şimmes, Syriac wines etc.… Let’s talk about Syriac culture. Is there anyone who has taken over the legacy of Nasra Şimmes?

Syriacs have several traditional arts that they have created and kept alive for hundreds of years. But there are not many people left who practice the arts of printing, silversmithing, weaving or stone cutting. There may be a couple of artistic silversmiths in Mardin, but there are not many others left.

Nasra Şimmes is considered to be the last artist to represent the traditional printing art. There are no Syriacs who have taken over to continue the legacy of Nasra Şimmes, but there are some Kurds who practice the arts for tourists.

The Syriac wines are purely handmade. Syriacs make really good wines. It is an ancient drink of ours. Both beer and Raki are also Syriac inventions. In the past, a lot of Raki was also manufactured at homes, but not anymore nowadays. Syriac wine is still produced and it is in great demand.

What is Sayfo? How do Syriacs look on the what happened in 1915? Do Syriac elderly have any memory of the history of 1915?

The Sayfo genocide was the last blow and Syriacs have not been able to recover since. Syriacs have been wiped out from Sivas to Malatya, from Dersim to Antep, Urfa, Elaziğ, Diyarbakir, Van and many other places. At that time, Malatya and Urfa were important centers for the Syriacs. Some were banished, others massacred, and many survived by converting to Islam. The Sayfo events became the straw that broke the Syriacs’ back. As a result of a systematic and insidious policy applied to Syriacs in this region, the remaining population also had to emigrate.

The creation of a uniform nation with the consequent policies of monism were the cause. Syriacs had to leave their country because of events such as the surname reform, the wealth tax, the events of 1955 and the Cyprus perils. Syriacs have not been treated as equal citizens in this region. They always felt like foreigners. And the Syriacs slowly emigrated. Nearly 60 Syriacs were murdered in the 1990s and these murders remained unsolved. From there Syriac emigration began to accelerate.

Syriacs see the Sayfo as part of their identity and made it their own. They can’t forget the Sayfo. Memorials and ceremonies are held on Sayfo Remembrance Day. It is very important that Sayfo is recognized. The peoples who perpetrated the Sayfo must face their actions. Sayfo happened in the Ottoman Empire when the Ittihat ve Terraki was in power. But no one says: it was my ancestors who perpetrated the act of Sayfo. But no one should escape the truth by saying “we have no blame”. Neither Turks nor Kurds can escape this truth. This is the only thing we want. If this happens, Syriacs will return to Turkey to settle here and we will live with the people who are here.

It was my grandmother who told me about the Sayfo. My grandmother was 9 or 10 years old at the time and she told me many stories about the Sayfo. She used to tell me very secretively. She was even afraid to tell.

Later we have investigated a lot. We did many interviews with the older people who went through the Sayfo and its aftermath and compiled these interviews. Sayfo is an important issue of our Syriac identity, it is a matter of existence.

There used to live hundreds of thousands Syriacs in the region called Tur Abdin. Today the Syriac population is not that large. And the number of Syriacs who currently live in Sweden and the U.S. is much bigger than the number of Syriacs living in Turkey. Without a doubt, Syriacs with their culture, past and history are indigenous people of this country. Would you like to make a call to the people in the diaspora to return to their country?

What you say is true. The area we call Tur Abdin runs from the Çınar district of Diyarbakir to Cizre and Hasankeyf, and it includes Mardin, Midyat, Idil and Kerboran. This whole region is called Tur Abdin. The center of Tur Abdin is Midyat. Tur Abdin means the mountain of worshipers. Surveys have been done in this region and we also have church sources: there are about 300 monasteries. When we say monastery, it means hundreds of monks used to live in them. Besides these monasteries, there are around 2,500 churches.

Tur Abdin is a small geographical region where Christianity shows itself the most in the world. In this area there is no village where there is not a church and a monastery. Whether it is a Kurdish or Arab village, there will be a church there. No exceptions. Nowadays, several of our churches and monasteries have been converted into mosques which are mostly called Ulu Mosques (ed. Grand or Central Mosque). The Ulu Mosque in Diyarbakir used to be the St. Tomas Monastery. There are many examples of Ulu Mosques in Turkey which originally were either monasteries or churches.

The number of Syriacs in the Tur Abdin region is almost non-existent today, about 5,000. There are about 20,000 Syriacs in Istanbul. There are more than 300,000 Syriacs who have emigrated from Tur Abdin and now live in America, Sweden, Germany and other European countries. Syriacs are without doubt the indigenous culture of this region. They are the rightful and true owners of this geographical region and have built up many civilizations here. They must return to this country.

What problems do Syriacs face today in Turkey? What suggestions or solutions do you have for these problems? How is the incumbent government looking at you?

The problems for Syriacs in Turkey today are the same as the problems of all other peoples. The problems arise when there is no democracy, rule of law and justice. Syriacs experience the same problems as Kurds and Turks do. Violations of human freedoms and rights, violations of the freedom of expression and the Kurdish issue are the most important problems.

As long as the Kurdish issue is not resolved in Turkey, I don’t believe that justice, freedoms and human rights will be upheld.

We absolutely must defend the peace. Peace must come. If the Kurdish problem is resolved democratically, then both democracy and justice will gradually get on the right track. As long as there is a problem with freedom and human rights, Syriacs will not return to this region. Even worse, they will continue to emigrate.

Until 2010, the government did many good things. After 2010, problems began to arise throughout Turkey. In 2008, with the case of the Mor Gabriel Monastery we reached a turning point.

Former Prime Minster Mr. Ecevit made a call to the Syriacs to return to their homeland and they would be received in the best possible way. He said that the state will work to solve their problems. Syriacs slowly began to return to their country.

In 2002, the AKP government implemented reforms in connection with the EU process and we applauded these steps. The right steps were taken in terms of freedom and constitutional rights. Syriacs began to return to their homeland. This stopped with the court case against the Mor Gabriel Monastery in 2008. From there things turned worse again. Already in 2008, problems started to appear in general in Turkey. Parallel structures etc. diverted the government from the path it had taken. All promises made to our people were broken. Neither Syriacs nor the other peoples are satisfied with the actions of the current government. Opposition to the government during the elections reached 50% to 60%.

As I said the problems for us Syriacs are the same as for the other peoples. There was some relief during the peace talks between the Turkish government and the Kurds. During this period, Syriacs began to return from abroad. After the July 15 coup, visits decreased and immigration from abroad ceased.

Our expectation is a peace process. All our problems are the same as for the Turks, Kurds and other peoples, that’s what I think.

Originally published in Turkish on Democrat Haber. Translation done by SyriacPress to the best of our knowledge.