Speech: Problems, Challenges and Opportunities (March 2012)

EU Turkey and the Arameans 055Problems, Challenges and Opportunities: Urgent Appeal to the EU and Turkey on behalf of the Aramean People

by Johny Messo
President of the World Council of Arameans (Syriacs) (WCA)
formerly Syriac Universal Alliance (SUA)

Distinguished Members of the European Parliament, 
Ladies and gentlemen,
Your Eminence Mor Gregorius Melki Ürek,

Before I kick off, I wish to express my deep gratitude to the distinguished Members of the European Parliament Mr. Peter van Dalen of the ECR and Ms. Renate Sommer of the EPP, for their willingness to co-organize and host today’s historic hearing on the Aramean people of Southeast Turkey who continue to lack a role and position in the Turkey-EU negotiations.

We are hopeful that together we will change this situation after today’s hearing and plant the seeds of turning ongoing problems into viable solutions and even mutual opportunities.

Before I will sum up some of these problems and opportunities, allow me to elaborate a little bit more on introducing the Aramean people to you so that you can still better understand their concerns and appreciate their questions.

1.1 Name: The phenomenon of more than one name for one people is not strange to you. Think of the synonymous names Holland and the Netherlands, English and British, Ottoman and Turk, Iranian and Persian or Hebrew, Jew and Israeli. In the case of our people, we are historically known under two names, Aramean and Syrian. The current Syriac Orthodox Patriarch, for example, rightly wrote that: “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 confusion with the largely Muslim Arab citizens of Syria, the Syriac people are increasingly using their originally Semitic name “Aramean” for their people and “Aramaic” for their language. So am I today, and we would appreciate it if you could continue this trend.

1.2 Indigenous: The Arameans and their Aramaic language are indigenous to Southeast Turkey, as can be confirmed by written evidence of more than 3,000 years old. They represent a pre-Islamic civilization that is native to Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. As you know, these nation-states have emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and have separated the Aramean people – not unlike the people of Germany and Korea who found themselves and their relatives split up overnight by national borders.

1.3 People: The Arameans were among the first to adopt the Christian Gospel. Because of their Christian faith, they have traditionally been called a religious group, community and minority in Turkey. In reality, however, they are a people or stateless nation, like the Greek or Armenian Christians. The vast majority of the Arameans also consider themselves a people. In Turkey, the Aramean people historically comprise the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Protestant, Chaldean and Nestorian communities.

1.4 Diaspora: Due to a number of reasons, the Arameans were forced to flee from their ancient homeland in the past decades to different continents. Hundreds of thousands have escaped Iraq in the last decade. Now we are witnessing the beginning of another silent exodus from Syria. Today, 25,000 Arameans reside in Turkey. No more than 3,000 of them have remained in their homeland in Southeast Turkey. In Germany alone there are 100,000 Arameans and all over Europe there are 250,000 Arameans. In the diaspora, especially in Europe, the Arameans have enjoyed the values of true democracy, freedom of religion, expression and association as well as equal citizenship. Thus, in addition to the many churches that have been founded in the receptive countries, socio-political and cultural organizations have emerged which are maintained by devoted and energetic volunteers.

1.5 Leadership: One of these is the Syriac Universal Alliance, founded in 1983 in New Jersey and whose name was recently changed into the World Council of Arameans (Syriacs). The WCA is a global umbrella organization consisting of various National Federations and numerous Local Associations in Europe, America, Australia and the Middle East. Today I am joined by the Presidents of the Federations of the Arameans in Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Belgium. Since 1999, the WCA has a Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. The WCA is dedicated to protect and secure the rights, liberty and equality of the Aramean people, safeguard and promote the cultural heritage of its ancestors, ensuring justice, and uniting all Arameans as an internationally recognized people or nation.

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2. Problems Faced by the Arameans in Turkey 

From this point onward, I should like to sum up four major problems faced by the Aramean people in Turkey. After that, a few opportunities and recommendations will be proposed to the Government of Turkey and to the European Union, its Parliament and pertinent Committees.

2.1 Lack of Recognition & Legal Status
2.1.1 Recognizing Arameans as a “Minority” Group
The 1923 Lausanne Treaty was supposed to be the key legal instrument that provided minorities in Turkey with some form of legal protection. Articles 38 to 44 guarantee the international protection and rights of “non-Muslim minorities”. However, the Arameans were never formally recognized as a “minority” under this pact. Non-Muslim minority status and rights were unreasonably restricted to the Greeks, Armenians and Jews.

Consequently, the Arameans could never enjoy their basic human rights, but instead had to suffer in many ways from discrimination. For instance, in theory (Article 40) the Arameans were granted “an equal right to establish, manage and control at their own expense, any charitable, religious and social institutions, any schools and other establishments for instruction and education, with the right to use their own language and to exercise their own religion freely therein.” In practice, however, Aramean teachers have been imprisoned for teaching Aramaic. In more recent times, state officials had even attempted to permanently close down ancient Christian monasteries such as Saffron in Mardin (1978) and St. Gabriel in Midyat (1997) for educating children Aramaic.

Recognition of the Arameans will give the crucial rights which enable them to survive in Turkey. Hence it is both just and reasonable, and even necessary for the future survival of the Arameans in their historic homeland, to officially recognize the Arameans. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has already taken the initiative in January 2010 and passed Resolution 1704, being the first international Resolution of its kind that calls upon Turkey “to recognise, promote and protect the Syriac [Aramean] people as a minority, which is indigenous to south-east Turkey, in conformity with the Lausanne Treaty and related international conventions” (Article 19.7).

We regret the fact that on 12 September 2010, Turkey missed the historic opportunity to modernize its concept of ‘minorities’ when it adopted certain constitutional amendments and align its constitution with international standards. Hopefully Turkey will rectify this in the forthcoming Constitution.

2.1.2 Recognising Arameans as the Indigenous Peoples of Southeast Turkey
In 2007, Turkey endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, while adding that “Turkey did not have any people in its territory that could be interpreted as indigenous peoples in the Declaration.” The WCA is delighted by Turkey’s support for the Declaration, yet disappointed by the unfortunate comment made by its Delegate. The WCA can easily refute this baseless assertion and prove the unbroken and irrefutable existence of at least 3,000 years of Arameans and their Aramaic written and spoken language in Turkey.

Let me give you an example of an indigenous people that has enjoyed recognition and which can be taken as an example to show that recognition is mutually beneficial for both the state and the indigenous people in question.

The Sami people are the indigenous people of Scandinavia. Norway has recognized them in 1990. As a result, the Sami people in Norway are entitled special protection and rights today.

Article 110a of the Norwegian Constitution reads: “It is the responsibility of the authorities of the State to create conditions enabling the Sami people to preserve and develop its language, culture and way of life.”

Now, the Arameans are the Sami people of the Middle East. We are a small and vulnerable group. Minority status alone is not sufficient anymore for the survival of the Aramean people. 
We are not only historically and legally entitled to this recognition as an indigenous people, we even need it for our survival in the homeland. The Kurds, who in fact have appropriated many of our ancestral lands, number in the millions and are not in danger of extinction. The Armenian, Greek and Jewish minority groups have a state and government who understand their responsibility to protect the existence of their nations and cultural heritages.

2.2 Expropriation of Land 
In 2009, delegations of the WCA attended several court cases in Southeast Turkey faced by the St. Gabriel Monastery and visited many villages in the area to understand the plight of the Aramean people. In 2010 and 2011, the WCA similarly visited the Southeast of Turkey to review matters and uncover what was taking place. What WCA has seen and heard from the local people was truly alarming. There is substantial evidence, including governmental records, proving that a significant amount of land is currently being expropriated from the indigenous Aramean people in Southeast Turkey. This is a continuation of the same policy which has seen the much publicised St. Gabriel Syriac Orthodox Monastery face six (6) trials and the potential loss of more than 800,000 square metres of land.

Let me quote the recent amendment 240 to the DRAFT RESOLUTION on the 2011 Progress Report on Turkey: “Reiterates its concerns about property ownership and property rights of minorities such as the difficulties encountered by the Aramean (Syriac) Community in relation to property ownership and calls upon the government to ensure that the Saint Gabriel monastery, founded in 397 AD, is not deprived of its lands, and that it is protected in its entirety; furthermore expresses its concern about the continuation of unlawful appropriation of significant amounts of land historically and legally belonging to ancient Aramean (Syriac) monasteries, churches and proprietors in Southeast Turkey”

Unfortunately, this important amendment did not make it! The Report only “calls on the Government of Turkey to ensure that the Saint Gabriel monastery, founded in 397 AD, is not deprived of its lands, and that it is protected in its entirety” (Article 26).

However, many proprietors of land who originate from more than 30 villages in Southeast Turkey suffer from equal problems (the WCA will soon release a detailed report about this underreported issue). Article 19.6 of the aforementioned PACE Resolution 1704 expresses “concern about the current status of the unlawful appropriation of significant amounts of land historically and legally belonging to” the Aramean people.

2.3 Endangered Aramaic Cultural Heritage
Experts have often warned that the Aramaic cultural heritage will disappear in the next decades. This is due to a number of factors, expedited after the inevitable mass exodus of Arameans from Turkey. The Arameans lack the necessary resources to found or facilitate, either in their ancestral land or in the diaspora, language academies, cultural heritage foundations and educational centers. While Turkey has at least a moral responsibility towards the Arameans, the Arameans have never received any serious state support to protect their heritage, even if it is a vital part of the world heritage and of the Republic of Turkey in particular. By helping Turkish citizens outside Turkey to preserve their identity, while simultaneously ignoring its indigenous Aramean citizens, Turkey continues to signal that the Arameans do not constitute any part of the country’s past, present or future.

2.4 Return Migration: The Future of Tur-Abdin
Primarily as a result of intimidations, persecutions and evacuations of entire villages, most Arameans fled from Tur-Abdin in the last three to four decades. After the Turkey-EU negotiations in the last decade, some 50 families returned to their homeland. The vast majority is only there for several months during springtime and the summer period.

Although things have slightly improved compared to the pre-1980 timeframe, there are still difficulties which are not stimulating mass return migration. For example, the lack of employment opportunities and facilities, especially for the youth that has grown up in Western countries, in order to build up a future in their homeland. Having received huge amounts of funds in the last decades from the UN, EU and the Council of Europe, we would have appreciated it if Turkey could properly develop it south-eastern terrain too. As has always been the case, the Arameans ask the Turkish state to guarantee and secure the right of return of its people in the Diaspora to their homeland in compliance with its obligations under international law.

In the recent years, Turkey has invested many tens of millions of dollars in foreign nations living outside its country. For instance, in the Palestinian Authority. In 2009 “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.” He was promised $150 million aid.

As citizens of the Turkish Republic, who moreover are indigenous to its south-eastern region, we similarly ask moral and material support to rebuild Tur-Abdin with governmental aid, in order to make it thrive again and attractive for the Arameans in the Diaspora to return to their homeland, particularly for the younger generation of Arameans.

3. Eight (8) Main Recommendations to Turkey and the EU
The WCA appeals to Turkey and the EU to support the forgotten Aramean people with all the necessary facilities to safeguard, develop and promote the endangered Aramaic legacy. This is especially so because Aramean culture, heritage, history and current global standing are a vital part of the world heritage and especially of Turkey’s rich cultural heritage. From that perspective, the WCA offers the following recommendations to Turkey and the EU to:

  1. Officially recognize the Arameans as a ‘minority’, in line with the Lausanne Treaty and the existing international treaties on minority rights that are especially guaranteed by the UN;
  2. Officially recognize the Arameans as ‘indigenous people’ of Southeast-Turkey, in keeping with the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples signed by Turkey in 2007 and Resolution 1704;
  3. End the delays of legal cases, as noted by the European Court of Human Rights Annual Report 2009, which ancient Aramean monasteries, villages and proprietors are facing;
  4. Stop the illegal expropriation of huge amounts of land historically and legally belonging to the Arameans, as affirmed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe;
  5. Accept its responsibility in restoring, safeguarding, developing and promoting the endangered Aramaic cultural heritage in Southeast Turkey;
  6. Assist and sponsor the Aramean Diaspora, who originate from Turkey, in effectively preserving their threatened language, culture and identity;
  7. To invest structurally in its south-eastern region, particularly in improving the security, infrastructure, job employment and facilities for attractive life circumstances in the area;
  8. Ensure that the Tur-Abdin region in Southeast Turkey remains populated by its original Aramean inhabitants in the next decades, if not centuries.

4. Four (4) General Recommendations or Opportunities to Turkey and the EU
The WCA further wishes to make four recommendations to Turkey and the EU which can improve the situation in the homeland and, moreover, the diplomatic relations between the Turkish Government and the Aramean people in general. There are many opportunities which we should seek together and subsequently work on. The EU can play a major role here.

  1. Let us found together a contact group in Brussels & Strasbourg consisting mainly of MEPs, especially MEPs of Turkish descent. The WCA will soon present a full outline of this initiative, but one of its main objectives is to ensure the survival of the Aramean people and their endangered Aramaic cultural heritage. The group can be named The Friends of the Aramean People in the European Parliament.
  2. Let us found together an Aramean ‘Consulate’ in Ankara. This will strengthen the dialogue and improve the relations between the Turkish Government and the Aramean people in the homeland and the diaspora. We have in mind the “Economic and Cultural Mission” of the Republic of China in Ankara. Considering our NGO in Status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN, we suggest our ‘Consulate’ to be called The Cultural, Economic and Social Mission of the Aramean People. 
  3. Let us focus and work together on joint projects. In cooperation with Turkey and the EU, the Arameans are eager to start and develop a number of socio-cultural projects. With external support, we can found together Aramaic language academies, cultural heritage foundations, educational centers and more, both inside and outside Turkey.
  4. Let us focus and work together on drafting and implementing a Road Map for all the Turkey-related issues with which the Arameans inside and outside Turkey struggle. The end goal is to achieve satisfying solutions for Turkey and the Aramean people, but also to focus on mutual opportunities.
  5. Let us hold together semi-annual or quarterly hearings in the European Parliament like today’s historic hearing in order to evaluate developments. Why this short timeframe to monitor the process? Because today, time is the archenemy of the Aramean people whose cultural heritage (including language) are rapidly disappearing.

If the Turkish Government and the EU have the (political) will to actually and constructively cooperate with the Arameans, the WCA is strongly convinced that it is fairly easy to change the current situation of the Aramean people and secure a bright future for them.

In a word, the WCA strongly believes that the historic moment has arrived for the Turkish Government and the Aramean people, to start a new chapter in their relations and transform all the existing issues into satisfying solutions and even into mutually beneficial opportunities.

Thank you for your attention.

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