Syriacs are by no means enemies of Turkey. But we do want recognition
Interview with the Dutch newspaper deKanttekening.
Link to the orginial Interview in Dutch: https://dekanttekening.nl/wereld/syriacs-zijn-absoluut-geen-vijanden-van-turkije-maar-we-willen-wel-erkenning/
Syriacs, a Christian minority in Turkey, are a disadvantaged group in that country. Rights that are formally there for minorities do not apply to them. A major cause is the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, argues Mesut be Malke. The German Syriac is active for the European Syriac Union. That treaty must go, he believes.
This spring, ESU published an extensive dossier on the Treaty of Lausanne, which is exactly 100 years old on 24 July. The treaty contains agreements that laid the foundations for a sovereign Turkish state, led at the time by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. That state was the successor to the Ottoman Empire, which fell apart for good after the First World War.
But it was not only that history that lay behind the treaty. Minority rights were also a crucial issue. After all, eight years earlier, in 1915, the Armenian genocide had taken place. This mass murder is well-known in the Netherlands, but fewer people know that the same year also saw the Sayfo, the Aramean genocide, in which Syriacs (with Arameans/Chaldeans and Assyrians also called Suroye) were targeted. Over half a million Christians were murdered at the behest of the Young Turks and with the help of Kurdish militias - 70 per cent of the total Aramean population. The 1915 mass purge was part of a "30-year genocide" of Christian minorities that began in the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century and ended under Atatürk's rule in Turkey.
The immediate trigger for the treaty was the 1921-1922 Greco-Turkish war. After negotiations, those two countries together with France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Romania, among others, established Turkey's borders in the west and southeast. Articles 37 to 44 of the Lausanne Treaty gave substance to minority rights and freedoms.
Only this section in the treaty is dead letter, argues Mesut Be Malke. He is foreign affairs spokesman at the German branch of the ESU. This organisation represents the interests of Syriacs, who have been living in diaspora among others in Europe since the Sayfo. The ESU also has a Dutch branch. According to Mesut Be Malke, the treaty does more harm than good and is better off disappearing as soon as possible. For the Kanttekening, he explains why.
On its website, the ESU calls Syriacs 'the oldest indigenous people of Mesopotamia'. How many of them currently live in Turkey?
'Before World War I, there were a million, of which perhaps 250,000 remained after the genocide. Many were killed or forced to convert to Islam. Women, for example, were forced to marry a Kurdish Muslim man. A form of slavery. The Turks were principals of the 1915 genocide, but the Kurds were the ones who carried it out.'
Why did the Kurds participate in this?
'That is a long history, dating back to the late nineteenth century. The Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II had promised the Kurds autonomy. In return, they cooperated in massacring Christians. While at the time only a third of the inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire were Christians, they owned two-thirds of the wealth. This led to anti-Christian sentiment, which flared up again in 1915.'
The Treaty of Lausanne enshrines minority rights, yet you say it is very harmful to Syriacs. Why is that?
'The treaty was about religion: Muslims and non-Muslims. Not about nation or ethnicity. The text itself is not harmful. I myself am non-Muslim and my rights are clearly stated. Unfortunately, however, much has changed in a century. Since the 1930s, it was about nation, not religion. The question was suddenly: who is or is not a Turk?
Therefore, conflict arose between Turks and Kurds, who still lived with the promise of partial autonomy. Young Turks wanted anyone who was not fully Turkish to assimilate. After the Kurds helped them kill the Christians, the Turks started killing the Kurds.
In addition, the system remained intact whereby Christians pay five times more taxes than Muslims. Many Christians left the country as a result. Currently, there are perhaps 10,000 Syriacs left in Turkey.
Nationalism, based on the Treaty of Lausanne, aimed for everyone to become Turkish and Muslim. Villages and cities were given new names - Istanbul and Izmir being the main examples, cities formerly called Constantinople and Smyrna. My own village is called Miden in Aramaic and my name is Be Malke. But both were changed by the Turks. They wanted to completely erase our identity.'
How could all this be because of that treaty?
'Because we are invisible in Turkey after World War I, erased, we can no longer defend ourselves. The Kurds started occupying our empty villages, confiscated our money and our women just like the Turks, and then called this Kurdish territory. It is like two thieves going into a house together, killing the man and stealing his wife. But then one thief says something unkind to the other and they start arguing with each other.
If we had been explicitly mentioned in the treaty, as Syriacs, it would all have been different. Then they couldn't ignore us. That is the main problem. The second problem is that there is no higher authority implementing the treaty: the Turks set their own rules and oversee the enforcement of freedoms of minorities.'
'Under Erdogan's regime, we were given more space, as long as we did not use it to seek recognition for the Sayfo'
What is it currently like for Syriacs to live in Turkey?
'The situation has improved in recent years. It's not as easy as it used to be to do bad things. Because of the internet, social media, people cannot keep their crimes secret as easily. And because Turkey wanted to join the European Union, it started to respect minority rights more.
But there is a downside: we can no longer have our own education, and speaking our mother tongue is forbidden by law - even if it is tolerated. The last 20 years have been better for us. But for how long? The improvement took place by the grace of individuals. Turks thought Christians might then return to Turkey and invest in the economy. Moreover, they saw Christians as a good protection, a buffer, against the Kurds. But when Christians also started claiming their rights, Turkey came up against them. There was a court case against the Mor Gabriel monastery (the oldest surviving Christian monastery in the world, from the fourth century, in southeast Turkey ed.). Turkey expropriated a lot of land from that monastery. And we haven't got that back yet.'
The Treaty of Lausanne should be lifted, ESU argues. Why? And what should take its place?
'Turkey should act as Germany acted after the Holocaust: by taking responsibility for the past. Turkey has conflicts with Kurds and Armenians. It is not about acknowledging 'guilt'. But if Turkey itself acknowledges what it did in 1915, it will emerge stronger. That will also be good for Syriacs.
But the pain is still there, Turks are our oppressors. First they killed our bodies in 1915. Then they started killing our minds. People who have been killed never come back. We are not enemies of Turkey. Absolutely not. We just want recognition that we are allowed to be there and we want some stuff back.'
In May, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was re-elected for five years. He defeated opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. How will this affect Syriacs, do you estimate?
'One example: before Erdogan came to power, nationalist thinking dominated. At that time, it was very difficult for us to be recognised as a minority by the government, because we are not Turks. Nowadays, on the contrary, it is more about Islam again and the emphasis is on the fact that we are not Muslims. However, something important has changed in how imams are trained. They now have to take compulsory university courses on the Koran. This gives them a broader view, with more emphasis on the message in the Quran, that Muslims should also accept people of other religions.
In addition, Erdogan is pragmatic: he wanted to future-proof Turkey and bring it into the EU. This gave us more space, as long as we did not use it to ask for recognition of the Sayfo. Because that remains non-negotiable.
Unfortunately, Islamic rule has become harsher in the last six to eight years. Erdogan has supported jihadists in Syria. This is damaging for us because earlier in northern Syria, Syriacs made up half of the population - today that has dwindled to 20 or 25 per cent. Instead of supporting the Syriacs against the jihadists, Turkey has supported the jihadists itself. We are not a threat in Turkey because of our small number, but we are also overlooked. And as for Kilicdaroglu we are in between everything and everyone. We can get hits from the left or from the right. But that he is Alevi and has so much support from different parties, that raised hopes that under him things would become easier for us. But that was only hope, there is no proof. Because as long as there is no written law establishing our rights, our situation can change just like that.'