Churches across Turkey, which are devoid of their congregants due to continued Christian persecution, are systematically desecrated by the government and many citizens of the country. Writes Uzay Bulut
One of the latest victims is the Assyrian/Syriac Mor Aday Church. It is being used as a stable by local villagers in a district in southeast Turkey, reported the Mesopotamia Agency (MA) on June 26:
The Mor Aday Church, a place of worship of Assyrians, is used as a barn by the villagers since it is left without a congregation and neglected [by authorities] in the Idil district of the province of Sirnak in southeast Turkey.
The Mor Aday Church is estimated to have been built in 620 A.D. Although the walls of the church, which has a history of 1,400 years, are mostly standing, it resembles a ruin because it is not a protected site.
Idil (Azakh, or Beth Zabday in Assyrian) is situated in Tur Abdin, the historic Assyrian homeland in southeast Turkey. Today it is a demographically Kurdish town with few Christians left, although it was originally built and resided in by Assyrians.
Idil, however, is not the only place in Turkey where churches are disrespected. Historic churches all across Turkey have almost no congregants left; many are in ruins today because of the historical and continued Turkish and Kurdish violations against Christians. Historians Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, the authors of the 2019 book The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924, note:
Turkey’s Armenian, Greek and Assyrian (or Syriac) communities disappeared as a result of a staggered campaign of genocide beginning in 1894, perpetrated against them by their Muslim neighbors. By 1924, the Christian communities of Turkey and its adjacent territories had been destroyed.”
The culmination of Christian persecution in Ottoman Turkey was the 1913-23 Genocide, during which Assyrians, Armenians, and Greeks were targeted. As many as 300,000 Assyrian people were murdered. Assyrians call the genocide “Seyfo,” which means “sword” in their native language, or “Shato D’Seyfo,” meaning “Year of the Sword.” Most victims were killed by the sword.
Joseph Yacoub, whose family was murdered and dispersed, wrote the 2016 book Year of the Sword: The Assyrian Christian Genocide — A History, documenting “the systematic killings, looting, rape, kidnapping and deportations that destroyed countless communities and created a vast refugee diaspora.”
Following the Christian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey, Christian-owned properties that were left behind by the victims were targeted by both the Turkish government and private citizens. Author Raffi Bedrosyan further explains:
Along with the hundreds of thousands of homes, shops, farms, orchards, factories, warehouses, and mines belonging to the Armenians, the church and school buildings also disappeared or were converted to other uses. If not burnt and destroyed outright in 1915 or left to deteriorate by neglect, they became converted buildings for banks, radio stations, mosques, state schools, or state monopoly warehouses for tobacco, tea, sugar, etc., or simply private houses and stables for the Turks and Kurds.
Azakh/Idil was one of the villages that defended itself through armed resistance against Ottoman genocide perpetrators during the Christian Genocide. For the survivors, however, the nightmare did not end after the genocide. Assyrians in Azakh were exposed to deportations, physical violence and arrests at the hands of Turkish authorities.
These pressures led many Assyrians to flee to northeastern Syria in the early 1930s after French military bases were formed there as part of the Mandatory Syrian Republic (a component of the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon).
The village of Azakh became a district and was officially renamed as Idil in 1937. Yet the Assyrians of the district were not allowed peace. In 1964, for instance, the Turkish government used the domestic affairs of Cyprus as an excuse to attack Assyrians, who then became victims of anti-Christian riots in Idil.
Despite systematic oppression, Idil remained entirely inhabited by Assyrians until the mid-1970s. From 1966 to 1979, an Assyrian named Şükrü Tutuş served as the mayor of the town. The demographics of the town, however, were then changed as a result of mounting pressures by both the Turkish government and Kurds in the region against Assyrians.
Scholar Susanne Güsten wrote a comprehensive report about the modern history of Assyrians/Syriacs in Turkey, entitled “A Farewell to Tur Abdin.” She noted:
[During the 1913-1923 Genocide] many Syriac villages put up a spirited defense, and several, like the town of Azakh (modern Idil), held out against besieging Kurdish tribes and Ottoman troops for months, but the majority were wiped out and massacred. The persecution also accelerated the emigration of Syriacs from the region, a trend that had begun after the Hamidiyan massacres of 1895 and was to reach its peak a hundred years later.
There were many pressures that continued to drive Syriacs out of Tur Abdin throughout the 20th century. Among them were the Turkification policies of the Turkish Republic, under which their villages and families were renamed in Turkish, their language was suppressed, their freedom of religion curtailed, and their identity denied. Unlike Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, the Syriacs have never been recognized by the Turkish state as a non-Muslim minority under the Treaty of Lausanne. As a result, they were not granted even the limited minority rights accorded to those groups, such as schools and the right to safeguard their language and culture. The reason for this remains the subject of debate, but it does not change the fact that it constitutes a clear violation of both the letter and the spirit of the treaty by Turkey.
A major factor driving Syriacs from Tur Abdin was the pressure of Kurdish tribes migrating into the region from the Eastern provinces, a process that accelerated from the 1960s onwards. In a classic conflict between sedentary farmers and nomadic herdsmen, Syriacs were attacked in their fields and vineyards by Kurdish aggressors acting largely with impunity in a region ruled by tribal force rather than the law. Forced to retreat to their villages, Christian farmers were left without their livelihood, leaving them little choice but to quit the region.
In 1979, with the aid of the Turkish authorities, a Muslim Kurd, Abdurrahman Abay, was “elected” as mayor. Following the escalation of the conflict between the Turkish army and the Kurdish PKK in the 1980s and ’90s, Assyrians were further victimized by both parties. The murder of former mayor Tutuş in 1994 forced most of Idil’s remaining Christian population to flee Turkey and seek asylum in Europe. According to local sources, there is still a small Assyrian community in the town (around 500 people). Yet the destruction of their cultural heritage remains ongoing.
Prominent Turkish human rights activists, Ayşe Günaysu and Meral Çıldır, have documented stories of seizures of Assyrian lands, as well as the harassment of Assyrians in the region. In 2017, they visited some Assyrian villages in Tur Abdin and spoke with Assyrian priests, teachers and other locals there. Günaysu then wrote an article for the newspaper Agos, describing her observations in the area:
We saw the traces of the Seyfo [Assyrian Genocide] everywhere. In the abandoned, half-ruined churches, monasteries, homes that treasure hunters have filled with holes. In people, and the stories they have told us about their grandmothers and grandfathers.
An Assyrian told Günaysu: “The stones need to speak to tell all this because there are no people left. People have been murdered.”
The Assyrian Genocide is ongoing in Turkey – through the pressure and persecution of Assyrians. Their villages were forcibly evacuated by the Turkish military in the 1980s and ’90s. Since 2002, when some returned from Europe to their villages or towns, they have been constantly struggling to survive.
According to Günaysu, continued attempts at seizing Assyrian lands include:
Seizing Assyrian-owned lands using fake title deeds.
Suing Assyrians, the real owners of those lands, to be able to take their lands. If they fail, suing them again under different names (as different applicants). If all efforts fail, applying to the Undersecretariat of the Treasury and the Ministry of Forestry in Ankara and making these institutions sue Assyrians. If the Treasury and Ministry of Forestry take these lands or properties, the complainants will then attempt to take them from these institutions later.
Illegally constructing buildings in Assyrian areas to claim a right on these areas later.
History has taught them. It is commonplace for [Muslims] of different political inclinations to unite against Christians if there is Christian property to share.
“Seyfo has never ended,” they told me. “Not in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, not up until today.”
They said: “More Assyrians were murdered after the genocide than during the genocide. They were murdered everywhere. While walking in the streets, working in their fields, while grazing their animals, or picking their crops… They murdered Assyrians, saying ‘Let’s kill them off so that we can own their property.’”
Günaysu noted that Assyrians were not exposed only to mass murder. Other crimes against the community include the kidnapping of girls, stopping people in the streets and beating them, injuring them, threats, harassment, intimidation tactics, as well as seizing their fields, homes, forests and other properties.
Meanwhile, the historic churches of genocide victims continue to be targeted across Turkey. The organization International Cristian Concern (ICC) has extensively reported on the abuse those churches arbitrarily receive from Turks and Kurds. Some recent examples include:
On May 11, it was discovered that Marta Shimoni Church in the village of Mehr/Kovankaya in Sirnak was attacked and desecrated by unknown persons. “This is the same village where the elderly parents of a Chaldean Catholic priest were kidnapped last year. The wife, Simoni Diril, was later found deceased. Her husband, Hurmuz Diril, remains missing.”
On April 17, ICC reported that “a Byzantine-era Greek church was recently plundered by treasure hunters in Samsun, Turkey. Roofs and walls were damaged in illegal excavations and frescoes were removed from the walls.”
On January 27, ICC once again called attention to the violations against churches in Turkey: “According to recent reports, Turkey continues to neglect and monetize historical churches. In one instance, a kebab seller hosted a barbecue at an Armenian church in Germus. The church had long been forcibly abandoned as treasure hunters and others illegally excavated the property. For nearly a century the local Christian population has appealed to the government to restore the place of worship.”
“In another incident, an Armenian Catholic church in Bursa was put up for sale for 6.3 million liras, around $800,000 USD. Originally built for the local Armenians, the historic church has been utilized for commercial purposes for nearly 100 years. The advertisement hails the place of worship as ‘Historical church that can become a culture and art center/museum/hotel in Bursa’. Turkish Parliamentarian Garo Paylan, who is of Armenian descent, voices his disapproval, saying, ‘Can a place of worship be sold? How can society and state allow this? Shame on you!’”
On January 15, ICC reported: “Illegal treasure hunters recently defiled a 900-year-old church in Bursa, Turkey.”
“Turkey’s history is riddled with examples of converting historical churches into mosques or restoring the buildings to become tourism sites. In this case, the church was left to crumble and be abused by those seeking earthly gain.”
Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952 and was officially recognized as a candidate for European Union (EU) membership in 1999. However, since its 1923 founding, it has also been implementing various destructive policies to wipe out indigenous Christians and their cultural heritage.
What is even more alarming is that at no time in Turkey’s history has its Muslim population raised a serious objection against the persecution of Christians, Jews or other non-Muslims. Sadly, if they are not active participants in those crimes, they are at least complicit through their complete silence. This has been the case of the vast majority of the public in Turkey.
What is it in the dominant Muslim culture that makes most Muslims either accomplices or completely reckless and indifferent in the face of horrific abuses against Christians, other non-Muslims and their cultural heritage?
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.
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