Syriac MPs in Sweden criticize Swedish government for failure to pressure Turkey over unjust conviction of Syriac Orthodox monk Aho

STOCKHOLM — Syriac Member of Parliament in Sweden Abraham Halef (Socialdemokraterna) posed a question to the Swedish government and urged it to put pressure on Turkey to overturn the unjust conviction of Syriac Orthodox monk Sefer (Aho) Bileçen on terrorism charges.

Halef touched on the monk’s life in the mountains of Tur Abdin and how he left his metropolitan life in Istanbul to restore the Mor Yahqup d-Qarno (St Jacob of the Horn) Monastery as an act of faith. Halef noted that the Syriac (Aramean–Assyrian–Chaldean) people have suffered and paid a deep price for the ongoing war between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partîya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK) and Turkish authorities.

As a part of his religious service and beliefs, said Halef, monk Aho’s is required to provide food and water to anyone who asks for aid. However, he would not have been worried about his safety, if the Turkish government committed to protecting its citizens.

Halef asked FM Ann Linde, “What way can the Minister, through the EU, do for the release and annulment of the sentence of monk Sefer Aho Bilecen?”

He went on to highlight the context of the incident in 2018, when people knocked on the door of the remote monastery asking for provisions. The monk himself does not deny the event, saying that it is his religious belief and duty to be there for people when they ask for help.

“It is important to understand the context in which these [Syriac Orthodox] monks live and what their everyday life looks like. Many people visit the monasteries every day. And it is custom to invite visitors for food and drink. The monks’ task is not to ask about the business of the people or why they are there; the monasteries are open to all, regardless of religious belief.”

Halef points to the plight of the Syriac people, caught in between the decades-long armed conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK. The armed conflict has severely affected civilian live in the area, especially of the small indigenous group of Christian Syriacs who remain in Tur Abdin in the country’s southeast.

Monk Aho of the St Jacob of the Horn Monastery, Tur Abdin in southeastern Turkey

Syriac MP Robert Hanna (Liberalerna) called the conviction arbitrary, based solely on giving food and water to people who, according to the Turkish prosecution, were members of the PKK.

“More than a hundred years ago, before the Syriac genocide of Sayfo, Tur Abdin in southeastern Turkey was one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The genocide exterminated almost the entire population. Today, it is a most culturally and religiously important place for the marginalized remaining Syriac population, but also for the large diaspora around the world.” remarked MP Hannah. Today Syriacs are stuck in the middle.

“If they do not explicitly say they support the Turkish government, they are treated as if supporting the PKK, and vice versa. All indications are that this is an innocent priest who has ended up in an impossible situation in a conflict that is not his.”

Hannah, too, sees the obvious route that Sweden should act is through the EU to pressure Turkey to release monk Aho Sefer Bilecen, “Is the government prepared to raise the issue of Aho’s release in the Foreign Affairs Council, with the aim of the EU jointly putting pressure on Turkey?”

Monk Sefer Aho Bilecen was arrested on 9 January 2020 by the Mardin police for membership of a terrorist organization. At the same time, police arrested the Syriac mayor Yusuf Yar of the village of Arkah and Musa Taştekin from the Syriac village of Sederi. On 7 April 2021, monk Aho was sentenced to 2 years and 1 month in prison for having given food and water to alleged members of the PKK. Monk Aho is free pending his appeal and remains in the Mor Yakoub d-Qarno Monastery (St Jacob of the Horn).