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Conversations with the Assyrians of Mardin

March 9, 2006

By Mehmet Kalyoncu

In this insightful essay reflecting on a recent trip to Turkey’s often ignored southeast, Turkish scholar Mehmet Kalyoncu makes the case for why the national interest lies with improving the rights of religious minorities such as the Assyrian Christians.

Assyrian Metropolitan Samuel Aktas was anxiously pacing back and forth when I first caught a glimpse of him. I was walking down the half-lit corridors of the Deyr-ul Umur Monastery in Midyat, near Mardin in the rural southeastern corner of Turkey. His anxiety owed, I would find out later, to the tragic killing of an Italian priest in Trabzon, a city on the northeastern Black Sea coast, which had taken place just a day before, on February 6 of this year.Before meeting with Metropolitan Aktas and his assistant, a Mr. Gulten, I took the opportunity to learn more about the Deyr-ul Umur Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries of the Assyrian Christians. The monastery, which is also known as Mar Gabriel, was built by Mar Samuel in 397 A.D. and has been an active place of worship ever since. It includes the churches of the Meryem Ana (Virgin Mary) Church, Kirk Sehitler Church, Kartminli Smuel Church, and Thedora dome with eight arches. Today, services are held on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, starting at 6.30 in the morning. There are also tombs in certain rooms, where generations of monks were buried vertically facing east- apparently, in order to be able to welcome Jesus during the Second Coming in the Apocalypse.

Meeting the Metropolitan

The high priest was at first confused by the fact that I was visiting from Washington D.C. and yet spoke perfect Turkish; “where are you from?” he inquired. When I answered, saying that I was from Trabzon, an enxious look appeared on Metropolitan Aktas’ face. But when I told him that I had come to learn about the Assyrian community, their lives and their relations with the Muslim communities in Mardin, he could see that I meant no harm and relaxed at once.

Metropolitan Aktas’ trepidation owed to a confluence of straining coincidences. I was an unknown Turk from Trabzon, and just a day earlier his Catholic colleague had been killed by another Trabzonian. At the same time, the unfortunate “cartoons crisis,” then at its peak with riots around the globe, was also making him anxious.

In the following days, we would both learn that the death of the Catholic priest was due to neither religious enmity against Christians in my home city, nor to Muslims’ anger over the Danish newspaper cartoons that insulted the Prophet Muhammad and remains a serious issue on a global level. Actually, though we didn’t know it yet, a 16 year-old who had a personal problem with the Italian priest was the killer. Indeed, the parishioners and clergy of the Sancta Maria Catholic Church, who I have known since my childhood, have always had good relations with the people of Trabzon and felt it safe to live in that city.

As we continued our conversation, both Metropolitan Aktas and his assistant expressed their deep unrest over the worldwide Muslim protests over the Prophet Mohammed cartoon. Even though they live in a country almost completely populated by Muslims, they had difficulty understanding the excessive reactions witnessed all over the world. They were shocked at the violence caused by Muslims in the name of defending the Prophet. “Are we not all humans seeking forgiveness?” stressed Mr. Gulten. “Why are we not forgiving each other? It is the Lord who is supposed to punish, not humans!”

The highly flammable issue would obviously make any religious minority in a Muslim country feel threatened. But for the Assyrians in Turkey, other problems are more realistically worrisome. The religious leaders lamented the fact that the state doesn’t allow the Assyrians to teach their ancient language, Aramaic, to their community members or to educate their own clerics. Mr. Gulten, for example, had to learn Aramaic in Lebanon. And the young Assyrian who guided me through the monastery probably also had to learn Aramaic abroad. According to him, the few students who are sheltered in the monastery stay there only during the school term, and attend the Midyat public schools in Midyat; they cannot be educated by the priests.

Yet both Metropolitan Aktas and his assistant emphasized that the Assyrians are the people of Anatolia, and of the long-established Anatolian culture. “We are all living under the same flag,” said Mr. Gulten. “We Assyrians, like all other Turkish citizens, are doing our military service for this country. My grandfathers too fought in Canakkale to defend this country. We are properly paying our taxes to the state.”

For Mr. Gulten, this contribution simply means that Assyrians “should be allowed the same rights and benefits” as other Turkish citizens. “The Minister of Education in Sweden is an Assyrian who migrated from Mardin,” Mr. Gulten noted. “If he can be a minister there, he should be able to be here in Turkey too.”

Nevertheless, both Christian leaders emphasized that Turkey has democratized a great deal in recent years and that the democratization process is an irreversible one. Yet there are always provocateurs and events with the potential to derail that process. The Metropolitan and his assistant agreed that the murder of a Catholic priest could have a negative effect on Turkey’s negotiations with the (Christian) EU member states. Interestingly, the Assyrians told me that they have been faithfully “lobbying” the European tourists who come to visit the monastery to take a positive view of Turkish EU membership.

Despite Local Interfaith Improvements, Problems Remain on the National Level

Despite the fact that there has not been any major conflict between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Mardin since the turbulent era of World War I, the peaceful relations between the Assyrians and the Muslim Kurds and Arabs have lately been internalized by all parts of the local society. An Assyrian man in Mardin told me that “up until [prominent Turkish Islamic scholar] Fethullah Gulen and the Journalists and Writers Foundation started the interfaith dialogue process in the mid 1990s, people around us used to merely view us as “unbelievers,’ just like [they refer to] the Yezidi. But after Gulen initiated dialogue with the Christian and Jewish leaders, people started to respect us as “People of the Book.'”

Another Assyrian, Mr. Kolda, owns a bookshop in upper Mardin. “Fifteen or so years ago,” he told me, “my friends and I were still being discriminated against by our classmates due to our Christian identity. They were calling as “Gavur’ or ‘unbeliever.’ But since then, things have started to change.”

In a similar vein, Mr. Gulten, the Head of the Midyat Assyrian Foundation, stressed that “Gulen’s tears have been a shield for us here,” referring to Fethullah Gulen’s highly emotional public addresses which were marked by his own tears and calls for accepting people of different religions. Both the Assyrian Metropolitan and Mr. Gulten noted that the Interfaith Dialogue event organized by the Journalists and Writers Foundation a year ago at the historic Kasimiye Madrasa has dramatically changed the perceptions of the local people about the Christians in Mardin for the better. Several other Assyrians in Mardin also told me that the renowned Muslim scholar has initiated a process which cultivated new mutual understanding between the Muslims and non-Muslims in this corner of Turkey.

My recent experiences in Mardin reaffirmed my belief that Turkey should recognize that its minorities, such as the Assyrians, are the nation’s very own people. As Gulten notes, they have fought to defend Turkey in the past, continue to serve in its military, and pay their taxes just like all the country’s other citizens. In reality, they are more Turkish than British, French or Greek, Dutch or German or whatever else. However, Turkey’s relative neglect in failing to address basic needs that stem from their religious identity has led them to sympathize more with the Assyrian diasporas in various countries in Europe and with their respective political circles.

This phenomenon has been witnessed also with Turkey’s other Christian minorities, such as the Greeks and Armenians, groups that have much stronger diaspora communities and thus greater potential political influence. Indeed, the ongoing state ban on the operations of Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox Chalki Theological School has been the cause of considerable tension between Turkey and the EU. Such incidents are pointed to be critics of Turkey as unfair restrictions on freedom of worship. Turkey’s failure to meet the needs of the Christian communities living within the country could always be something that certain political circles in Europe might exploit to stalemate the EU membership negotiations.

Ye these communities, even if non-Muslim, are no less good citizens of the Turkish Republic than any Muslims in Turkey. Hence, the AK Party government should be generous in granting them rights that will enhance their feeling of belonging. The Assyrians whom I met, for example, would be delighted if they could teach their ancient Aramaic language and educate their own religious clerics.

Indeed, such a policy could even have positive economic impact on areas of country such as the southeast, which have historically been poor and rarely visited. By restoring Aramaic, Turkey could even become a meeting-place for Christians from around the globe, inspired to learn the ancient language of the Bible in one of the places where Christianity first took root and where the Assyrians still worship in their ancient style.

Turkey has a richly diverse culture and boasts a lot more to offer the world than most foreigners know about. Issues such as language and the Chalki Seminary should not be allowed to be divisive, politicized obstacles on the path to EU membership. It is crucial for the Turkish state to realize that the non-Muslim communities, be they Assyrians or another, are people of a common Anatolian culture. If the state does not protect their rights and better their living conditions, it is inevitable that outside interests would try to step in and interfere. Turkey as a whole can only benefit by being proactive rather than reactive in relating to its non-Muslim minorities.


Mehmet Kalyoncu is a graduate student at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and frequent contributor to

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