Speech: The Sincerity of Turkey’s Democracy? (November 2010)

 MG 0332The Sincerity of Turkey’s Democracy? The Case of the Indigenous Aramean (Syriac) People

By Johny Messo, President of the Syriac Universal Alliance

Distinguished Eminences and Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, I wish to compliment the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle as well as the Order of the Pammakaristos for organizing this important, prestigious and much needed conference.

I also wish to express my sincerest gratitude to the organizers, and in particular to Mr. George Rockas, for inviting me today to represent the voice of a neglected people in and by Turkey. I am hopeful that, with a common spirit of humanity, together we can plant the seeds at this conference to turn our common problems into viable solutions and even opportunities. 

I should like to continue my statement about “The Sincerity of Turkey’s Democracy? The Case of the Indigenous Aramean (Syriac) People.”

I have been asked to share with you the main issues and concerns of my people in Turkey. Due to time restrictions, I have selected three major problems my people face in Turkey. But allow me first to introduce the people I represent so you can understand a few of our many problems.

  1. Name: His Holiness the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch wrote: “The Syriac language is the Aramaic language itself, and the Arameans are the Syrians themselves. He who has made a distinction between them has erred.” However, to prevent any confusion with the largely Muslim Arabs of Syria, our people are more and more using our originally Semitic name “Aramean; Aramaic.” And so am I today.
  2. Indigenous: The Arameans and their Aramaic language are indigenous to Southeast Turkey, as confirmed by written evidence of at least 3,000 years old. They represent, in fact, a pre-Islamic civilization that is native to Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. 
  3. People: The Arameans, as many of you will know, were among the first to adopt the Christian Gospel. Partly for that reason, my people in Turkey have traditionally been called a religious community. In reality, the Christian Arameans are a people or stateless nation, and this is how their vast majority increasingly perceive and call themselves. In Turkey, the ethno-religious Arameans historically consist of the Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant), Chaldean and Nestorian religious communities. 
  4. Diaspora: As a result of systematic ethnic cleansing, land theft, persecutions and discrimination by the Turkish State, often with the help of Kurdish auxiliaries, the Arameans fled from their homeland. Today some 25,000 Arameans reside in Turkey, among whom circa 2,500 souls have remained in Southeast Turkey. The number of Aramean Europeans substantially exceeds the number of Arameans in this region.
  5. Leadership: In the diaspora, particularly in Europe, the Arameans have tasted the delights of true democracy, freedom of religion, expression and association as well as equal citizenship. In the West, secular organizations have emerged in addition to the churches and monasteries aiming at organizing, defending and representing the Aramean people and their fundamental human rights.

2. The Aramean Question in Turkey
Now, the Aramean Question in Turkey consists of past and present cases of many human rights violations which have never been addressed by Turkey or the international community. I have decided to very briefly introduce the three major issues and then ask Turkish State Officials questions which faithfully represent the voice and the desire of the Aramean people. It is hoped that this will initiate an official dialogue with the Turkish Government on a socio-political and cultural level, conceivably coordinated by the EU.

2.1 Lack of Recognition & Legal Status
Turkey signed the Peace Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Despite the fact that this Treaty, which can be regarded as Turkey’s Minority Framework, guaranteed the protection and rights of the non‐Muslim minorities and non‐Turkish nationals, the Arameans were never granted formal recognition by Turkey as a “minority” such as formulated in this Convention. Consequently, they have never enjoyed their basic human rights which include, for example, the foundation of Aramean schools, hospitals and even new churches. On that account, one could boldly state that the religious freedom of the Arameans is even more restricted than that of the Christian Greek and Armenian nations who are recognized by Turkey. 
1. What is Turkey’s position on recognizing the Arameans as a ‘minority’, in conformity with international law and the Lausanne Treaty from 1923, much like the Greeks, Armenians and Jews, so that they are allowed to establish their own schools, teach their Aramaic language and freely practice their Christian faith? 
2. What is Turkey’s view on recognizing the Arameans as an ‘indigenous people’, in keeping with the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples signed by Turkey in 2007 and explicitly stated in Resolution 1704 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe?

2.2 Illegal Land Occupation
There is substantial evidence that at least, I repeat, at least 10 million of square meters of land is currently being expropriated from the Aramean people in Southeast Turkey. The most famous case is that of the Syriac Orthodox St. Gabriel Monastery, which faces six court trials today and the potential loss of more than 800,000 square meters of land. 
3. What is Turkey’s stance towards the continuation of the illegal expropriation by the State of huge amounts of land historically and legally belonging to the Arameans, as affirmed by the European Union and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe?
4. When will Turkey end the delays of court cases, noted by the European Court of Human Rights Annual Report 2009, that Aramean monasteries, villages and proprietors are facing?

2.3 Return Migration: The Future of Tur-Abdin
Last year, Turkey announced that it will invest $150 million in the Palestinian Authority. I would like to quote from one of the Turkish national newspapers which covered the high-level meeting between Palestinian and Turkish leaders: “Mahmoud Abbas solicited Turkey’s help for building Palestinian state institutions and constructing infrastructure for education and health services as well as creating jobs. Toward this end, Turkey pledged to build a university hospital, a new industrial zone and a conference hall. Moreover, Turkey will help with the infrastructure of Palestinian television and support the foundation of a diplomatic academy in Palestine.”
I have three questions here:
5. While I understand Turkey’s concern for the Palestinian-Israeli situation, I question why is Turkey interfering with Israel’s internal affairs while it has not solved its own domestic situation? And why, in fact, is Turkey able to readily invest 150 million dollars in Palestine and translate its words into action, whereas it continues to neglect its own citizens and society in its very own backyard? 
6. Is Turkey ready to invest structurally in its south-eastern terrain, above all in improving the security, infrastructure and facilities for normal life circumstances there that may draw Aramean refugees back to the land of their ancestors? 
7. Can Turkey ensure that the Tur-Abdin region in Southeast Turkey, an ancient Christian region which is the Aramaic counterpart of the famous Mount Athos, remains populated by its original Aramean inhabitants in the next decades, if not centuries?

3. The ball is in Turkey’s court
The Arameans have an ancient history in Turkey and are one of the oldest Christian peoples in the world. Despite genocide, mistreatment and discrimination, they have always remained peaceful and loyal citizens. Noting that the Christian Arameans have fled from their homeland and in the past decades have frequently expressed the desire to be officially recognized by the Turkish Government as a ‘minority’, according to the Lausanne Treaty, in order to obtain a legal status so that they can start building up a future in their ancestral land, Turkey must demonstrate how sincere its commitments to the values and principles of the EU truly are.
The Arameans, above all, ask for equal citizenship, based on a new constitution that meets the standards of the EU and which laws will effectively be implemented. They strive for the recognition of their people and historic presence in Southeast Turkey. They ask not to be treated as foreigners or as a fifth-column by Turkish society, led by the mainstream media and biased textbooks. In fact, Turkey should embrace and integrate the native Arameans as an ambitious people who can enrich it culturally, intellectually, spiritually and economically. With their experience in the Western diaspora, the Arameans may even become beneficial to Turkey in assisting Turkish society in the ongoing process of democratization. 
Between the seventh and tenth centuries A.D., the Christian Arameans transmitted the Mesopotamian and Greek sciences to the Muslim Arabs who later exported this knowledge to Europe. Perhaps with their Christian background and as a people that has integrated most successfully in European countries, the Arameans may once again form a bridge between two civilizations, this time between Turkey and the EU. In any case, the ball of democratization is in Turkey’s court. 

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