Devoid of a free homeland or autonomy, Assyrians (Chaldeans-Syriacs) — who have resided in the Middle East for millennia — are being subjected to widespread persecution at the hands of the Turkish state and local Muslims.
The continued discrimination is so intense that even dead Assyrians and their cemeteries cannot escape it.
Miho Irak, an Assyrian Christian from Turkey, lost his life on August 20 at age 77 in Belgium, where he had been living for 22 years. A father of eight, Irak was a member of the funeral fund of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs, the Diyanet. He regularly paid membership fees.
His daughter Nezahat Irak says that Diyanet officials gave up on their plans of taking her father’s dead body to Turkey after they learned he was a Christian.
According to its regulations, the Diyanet is to take the dead bodies of its members that lose their lives outside of Turkey to their home country. It is also to give consultation to the family members and provide them with burial services.
When Diyanet officials registered my father as a member, they did not ask him his religion. After he died, we requested them to hold his funeral in Turkey. They accepted our request and started the procedure, but before we sent my father’s dead body to Mardin, our hometown in Turkey, we wanted to hold half hour funeral ceremony at the church in the city of Machelen, where my father lived. Then the attitudes of the Diyanet officials completely changed. We were shocked.
We have all the records. The moment they heard the word “church”, they immediately changed their minds and told us that they do not serve Christians due to some article in the regulations of the Diyanet.
[T]he funeral fond of the Diyanet must serve all Turkish citizens regardless of their religious affiliation.
We are citizens of Turkey. And the article the officials referred to does not mention that they do not serve Christians.
We were already deeply saddened by our father’s death. Bur after we were exposed to this discrimination by the Diyanet, we were devastated. They do not respect even dead Christians.
The family took Irak’s body to Turkey and buried him in Mardin on August 25. But it is not certain whether Irak will be allowed to rest in peace. Recently, Assyrian cemeteries have been exposed to desecration.
On November 1, for example, the Assyrian cemetery in the city of Adiyaman in southeastern Turkey was attacked by “unknown assailants.” At least ten gravestones were destroyed. A similar attack against that same Assyrian cemetery took place in 2006.
An indigenous Christian people of Mesopotamia, the Assyrians have been exposed to massacres many times throughout the centuries. The historical Assyrian homeland is partly within Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
A major attack was carried out by the Ottoman Empire against Assyrian civilians during World War I. Professor Hannibal Travis writes that hundreds of thousands of Assyrians:
… were subjected to a deliberate and systematic campaign of massacre, torture, abduction, deportation, impoverishment, and cultural and ethnic destruction.
Sadly, the widespread persecution of Assyrians at the hands of Muslims in the Middle East was facilitated by the British. According to a report by Minority Rights Group International, they left Assyrians to this fate during World War I:
The Assyrian community was invited by the British to be an ally in World War One. In return, they were promised autonomy, independence, and a homeland. After the British mandate in Iraq expired, the question was never resolved and the status of Assyrians in Iraq was left with the government there.
Assyrians were also excluded from the Treaty of Lausanne signed in 1923, which led to the international recognition of the Republic of Turkey and set the borders of the new country:
Turkey has restricted the scope of the Treaty of Lausanne to Armenians, Jews and Rums. This has unlawfully left other non-Muslims, including Assyrians, outside the protection of the Treaty. Assyrians have been particularly vocal in pointing out their unlawful exclusion and demanding the recognition of their rights under the Treaty.
Because of this exclusion, they do not have the right to education in their mother tongue, something that many Assyrians wish to do. They also do not have the right to set up their own schools, enjoyed (albeit with state restrictions) by other minorities.
The persecution of Assyrian continued even after the Ottoman genocide of Assyrians and the establishment of the Turkish state:
In Turkey, in the 1920s and ‘30s particularly, Assyrians continued to suffer alongside Kurds and Armenians under Turkish law. Their villages were renamed with Turkish names.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Assyrians were subjected to new horrors due to conflicts between the Turkish armed forces and the PKK:
They suffered forced evictions, mass displacement and the burning down of their homes and villages. The internally displaced people (IDPs) were not offered just compensation or provided with alternative housing.
According to a joint release issued in June 1994 by the Assyrian Democratic Organization and Human Rights without Frontiers, 200 Assyrian villages have been destroyed in Turkey over the previous 30 years.
Assyrian MP Erol Dora submitted a parliamentary motion in 2014, stating:
As a result of these massacres, which are called ‘murders by unknown assailants,’ in 1980s and 1990s, more than 50 Assyrians lost their lives. … The fact that the murderers have not been brought to court, even though it has been years, has increased the victimhood of Assyrian people.
During the 1990s, Assyrians in Turkey were also exposed to:
… abductions (including of priests), forced conversions to Islam through rape and forced marriage, and murder.
The brutal abuses were documented by several media outlets, such as Amnesty International and other organizations. The report by Minority Rights Group International added:
Around 95 percent of Assyrians have left Turkey because of persecution and displacement.
The remaining Assyrians in Turkey are estimated to number 25,000.
Reverend Lahdo Kahya, an Assyrian clergyman of the Syriac Orthodox Church who lived in the city of Adiyaman for sixteen years, said the following in an interview discussing the plight of these Assyrians remaining in Turkey:
My God, why all this pain? I still cannot believe it. Why destroy the lives of so many people? Why make so many people go through so much pain? That country would have been enough for all of us. That city was the world’s most beautiful city and that geography was the world’s most beautiful geography.
And today, all we have left there is one cemetery.”
Rev. Kahya himself had to flee Turkey for Germany in 1985 in the midst of the persecution, fearing for his life. Now, after all the suffering and murder he describes, Assyrians are being exposed to discrimination even in death.