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Syriac Orthodox Christians in Turkey -”This Is Simply Our Home”
ICC Note: Encouraged by changes in the political atmosphere, nearly a hundred Assyrian Christian families have returned to Turkey from Eastern Europe in recent years. Nonetheless, Assyrians continue to face many problems, “from the expropriation of land belonging to a monastery, to a ban on special schools and kindergartens, and also a lack of places of worship in Istanbul,” reports.
By Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere
2/25/2013 Turkey ( -In recent years, around 60-100 Syriac Orthodox families have returned from central Europe to Turkey. Encouraged by changes in the political atmosphere, the minority nonetheless faces a host of problems, from the expropriation of land belonging to a monastery, to a ban on special schools and kindergartens, and also a lack of places of worship in Istanbul.

Among them is also the muhtar, the elected village chief, Aziz Demir, who lived with his family in Zurich and near St. Gallen. “Even if our lives there as Christians were very pleasant, something was still missing,” he says on the terrace of his house, where he lives with his wife, from a neighbouring village, and their youngest son, Josef, who attends secondary school in Midyat. With a sweeping gesture beyond the newly landscaped garden out onto the plain, he says “This is simply our home.”
Urgent need of restoration
The Demirs and the other 16 families all live in new houses, because the buildings of the old village, within site of the new developments, were for the most part destroyed in the clashes between the army and the PKK. As was the old church, which is in urgent need of restoration but still awaits the necessary permits.

Today, the great majority of the Syriac Orthodox faithful lives in Istanbul. Sait Susin, chairman of the Syriac Orthodox Foundation in Istanbul, estimates that about 17,000 of the approximately 20,000 members live in Istanbul. Currently, there is only a single Syriac Orthodox church there, in the trendy district of Beyoglu, which was built in 1844 for the around 40-50 families living in the city at that time. The community, most of whose members now live in Bakirköy, close to Atatürk Airport, therefore also uses Catholic churches for services.
In addition, the foundation has been submitting applications for years to build a new church, for which it needs land to be assigned to it by the municipal administration. Last year, the city made two “immoral offers” of land confiscated from Catholic and Greek Orthodox communities. The Syriac Orthodox leaders therefore rejected the offers for the time being. Should the plot in question be returned to the Catholic Church, however, they would be prepared to try to reach an agreement with the Catholic priests to erect a new church next to the Catholic cemetery.
“You are not a minority”
But that is not the only problem confronting the Istanbul community. Outside of Tur Abdin, only a minority of its members are fluent in Aramaic. Çelik estimates that “around 3,000 people in Istanbul speak the language, but only about 200 can also read and write it.” The foundation had therefore submitted a request to open a kindergarten with instruction in Aramaic. The response of the ministry of education was: “You are not a minority; therefore you cannot teach your children a foreign language.”
Although Syriac Orthodox Christians are clearly not Muslims and thus should be able to benefit from the minority rights stipulated in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the Turkish State has granted these rights thus far only to Greeks, Armenians and Jews, with numerous infringements.
An adjustment of Turkish laws to European minority rights standards, long overdue, would not only solve the problem of the kindergarten, but would also create a modern frame of reference for all the other issues. Nothing revolutionary, just equal rights for all.

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