Turkey’s Syriacs Face Pressure Amid Local Bigotry and Opportunism

After a brief period of tranquility, the last remnants of Syriacs face new hardships in southeastern Turkey. This time local feuds and petty opportunism drive the pressure against them.

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Syriac priest Sefer Aho Bilecen was briefly detained by Turkish military police in January.

The political modernity has shattered the traditional components of the social fabric in Anatolia; it tore apart various ethnic, religious and social sub-identities for the achievement of the sacred cause of nation-building launched by the founding fathers of the Republic. The Turkification of the entire nation, with little regard for the expression of different identities, was never without controversy and without fuss. As the century-old Kurdish conflict and the simmering Alevi question attest, Turkey’s ethnically-designed nation-building objective proved to be a costly blunder with lingering ramifications for today’s elusive social peace and political stability.

As Karen Barkey judiciously analyzes in an article, the hardly-maintained codes of inter-communal peace within the bounds of the Ottoman imperial social structure have become the biggest victim of this modernization program marked by militant secularism and ethnocentric nationalism that placed Turkishness at the very heart of national identity. Consequently, Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities still bear the implications of an unfinished revolution in this body politic ostensibly defined as a democratic republic, but hardly functions as such in reality. A recent wave of pressure on Turkey’s already-shrinking Syriac (Assyrian) community is a grim reminder about the unresolved nature of this incomplete leap forward to modernity. It is a sorry tale about the fraying nexus between the state and its Christian minorities.

Mardin, once a blossoming home to a wide array of ethnic and religious sub-identities, suffers a pervasive culture of intolerance recently. The Syriac community, after a brief period of tranquillity and hard-won reconciliation, falls victim to the emergence of locally-generated bigotry and hatred. Since last year, pressure from locals has mounted over Syriac villages. A Syriac priest (Sefer Aho Bilecen) was briefly detained earlier this year over the allegations of abetting outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants. (He was later released). Most recently, an old Syriac couple was reported missing. Last week, one of them was found dead.

But the sectarian or inter-religious strife is not driving force behind these attacks or mounting pressure against them. Four major factors play an important role in this reversal of fortunes for the Syriacs.

First is the transformation of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) from a promising center-right party to an illiberal one. As part of the E.U. reform process, the AK Party government launched sincere efforts to bring back the Syriac diaspora scattered around Europe after they migrated from Anatolia , fleeing the political persecution during the course of the 20th century. Hundreds of families were resettled in Mardin, Midyat and other towns throughout the 2000s. But as the AKP underwent an authoritarian turn, the democratic setback had also ramifications at the local level. The government has no longer had an agenda for democratization and social reconciliation in some turbulent parts of the country. This retreat from the democratic path had an ominous impact on Syriacs.

The second reason is also related to the first one. AK Party’s realignment with the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) became entrenched for political reasons. It marked Erdogan’s abandonment of the Kurdish peace process for the sake of his new nationalist alliance following the collapse of the fragile truce between the Turkish state and the outlawed PKK in 2015. A war mindset has prevalent in the Kurdish-majority parts of Turkey. All these factors have made the AK Party more reluctant for risky moves such as democratic opening and other overtures at the local level to avoid alienating its newfound nationalist ally.

The third is the disastrous consequences of the purge in public service following the 2016 coup attempt. The majority of the new governors, government-appointed trustees, new security officers and police chiefs in southeastern Turkey (where Syriacs are mostly located) are mostly tone-deaf statist figures with little sympathy or tolerance for local sensitivities. The government’s zealous policy to crush the pro-Kurdish HDP and the urban war (2015–2016) against the PKK in cities set back all the gains of the past decade. This new regional policy has created a new complexion and a web of realignments between tribes and the central government. In the end, bureaucrats representing the state feel compelled to accommodate, and even tolerate, some legally-problematic behaviors of local leaders who lean on the support of the Turkish state against the PKK. To recruit loyalty/support from these locals, these bureaucrats simply look the other way if local allies of the Turkish state attempt to exploit this political benevolence to their advantage in their goals to enrich and empower themselves.

Related to this distorted relationship, which easily yields to manipulation by clients of the government support, there is another but less-noticed aspect that shapes the locals’ hostility or aggressive behavior toward some rich Syriac landowners. When a priest and a group of Syriacs were remanded in January of this year, the gendarmerie operation took place after an anonymous tip-off from a neighboring village adopted by pro-government village guards. As some Syriacs possess arable and very productive farmlands, the guards, according to an account on Twitter, fixated their focus on a brazen takeover of those lands through legal chicanery by portraying Syriacs as PKK supporters. Their bid crumbled after a public campaign to secure the release of the priest and other Syriacs.

All of these factors have collectively contributed to the conditions that make life difficult for local Christians, Yazidis and Syriacs who have been natural parts of Anatolia’s social fabric for more than two millennia.

Especially, Syriacs were indispensable elements of the early Islamic civilization when they translated the texts of Ancient Greek philosophy (first to Syriac, then to) Arabic. Their contribution played a pivotal role in transferring the forgotten treasures of Plato, Aristoteles and many other Greek philosophers to the Medieval Christendom where the philosophy of the Late Antiquity took a backseat amid the ascendancy of the divine revelation.

But their distinguished place in the Islamic civilization was of little help in the subsequent course of history as relations between Muslim rulers and their subjects sometimes fluctuated between peaceful mutual coexistence and mutual distrust. The ever-shifting winds of Turkey’s political context again put ties between the government and Syriacs into a stress test. Given their indispensable contribution to the flourishing of Islamic science and philosophy during the Abbasid Renaissance and later centuries, it is Turkey’s turn to pay homage and respect to this native population by securing their wellbeing and safety against the forces of nationalist bigotry and the local opportunism.

Written by

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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