Vicken Cheterian

When Turkey Seizes what remains of Assyrian Property

Two pieces of news from the Middle East did not catch the attention of the mainstream media, nor political commentators. The first is that the Turkish authorities, yet with another administrative manoeuver, expropriated Churches, monasteries, cemeteries, and other real estate that belonged to the Syriac community of Midyat since centuries. The churches and the cemeteries were still being used by the tiny surviving Syriac community living in southern Turkey, and were taken care of by the famous Mor Gabriel Monastery. The total number of property being transferred is around 50, according to Kuryakos Ergün, Chairman of Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation as quoted by Agos.[1] 

The second news was from Istanbul: again pressure by religious group increased to turn the Hagia Sophia “museum” into a mosque. One of the activists of Saadet Party, who led a march on May 29 to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque, was on the record saying: “It’s not like the stones of the Hagia Sophia are holy, there is nothing inside it that makes it special, but God told us it is important.”[2] May 29 is the date when Ottoman Armies led by Mehmet II conquered the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. Hagia Sophia was first built in 537. Were the first to convert it into a mosque, and then the Kemlasit made it into a museum in 1935. Nevertheless, for many Hagia Sophia remains a symbol of the finest Byzantine architecture, and its conversion to a mosque would leave many people out of what was for the longest period of its history an Orthodox masterpiece. The Orthodox theological school on Halki (Heybeliada) Island near Istanbul remains closed since 1971, and promises of its return to the church never respected.  

In today’s Middle East, where there is no lack of sensational news: In Turkey, the Kurdish problem – exactly over the same lands where the Ottoman and later the Turkish state annihilated the Assyrian and Armenian populations, the same Turkish state is fighting a war that does not promise any end. On the contrary, the two sides seem to be posed to a new and prolonged confrontation both in southeast Turkey, as well as in the entire northern Syria. Next, there are the wars in Syria and Iraq with their limitless violence that does not seem to excite the public opinions; in Iraq, the Caliphate of the “Islamic State” lost its capital Mosul, on the third anniversary of its announcement. In Syria the conflict has reached a level of absurdity, where “the friend of my enemy is my friend”.  

Today, the entire Middle East is burning. New conflicts are threatening to destroy whatever civilization has accumulated for millennia. Now, the dominant discourse is about “Sunni against Shiite” conflicts, a phenomenon that the region had not experienced since the Ottoman-Safavid wars. But that is not all, Sunni or Shiite solidarity is as real as the promises of Arab, Turkish or Kurdish nationalism is. There is strong power struggle among the many Iraqi-Shiite military formations, or Syrian majority-Sunni rebels. On the regional level, the Sunni alliance has recently revealed its cracks, with Saudi-Arabia, Egypt and the Emirates launching a diplomatic and economic war against Qatar – an ally of Turkey. The “Islamic State” is collapsing, leaving behind death and destruction – not only of its enemies, but also of the population it pretends to empower. ISIS destroyed not only Christian Churches, the priceless archaeological treasures of Palmyra, Nineveh, and the Mosul Museum, but also the 9-century old al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s old town.

So much is happening in the Middle East, so why should anyone worry about the confiscation of some lands, or the conversion of old churches into mosques, one could argue?

In the Middle East, we do not know our history. For a century we refuse to learn from our history, ignored the fact that one-fifth of the Middle Eastern population, Orthodox Greeks, Assyro-Chaldeans, and of course Armenians, were deported and massacred during the First World War. Their property was looted by their former neighbours and by the state. Their cultural heritage, places of worship, destroyed or in the best case converted, to be used as prisons, stables, or made into mosques. For an entire century politicians and spiritual leaders pretended that this did not happen. Our intellectuals reveal insisting indifference towards the crimes committed on their own land; while being sensitive towards injustice against nations on other continents, to human rights violations thousands of kilometres away, yet they were oblivious towards the first modern genocide that took place in their own neighbourhoods, villages, or death marches that took place in their own deserts.

Today, we do not think about the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians as foreigners in the Middle East. Armenians have become a Caucasian people, the Greeks Balkan or European people, and the Assyro-Chaldeans a forgotten people. Yet, those three populations are the native peoples who built the Middle Eastern civilizations. We forgot that Aramaeans, the ancestors of today’s Syriacs, initially built Damascus; that Alexandria, Antioch and Istanbul were Greek-Byzantine cities, and Armenians inhabited not only eastern Asia Minor but also Jerusalem and Cairo. These populations played an important role in the economy and culture, foreign exchange, etc. Don’t we see that their absence today has catastrophic consequences to those who remain in the region? Isn’t the catastrophic relationship between Middle East on the one hand, the West but also the east in crisis because of their absence? 

In 1914, there were between 1.1 to 1.7 million Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, 500-600 thousand Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs, and 1.4 to 2.1 million Armenians. Half this population was killed during the First World War, the rest were deported, or converted to Islam, became Turks, Kurds, and Arabs. Today, in the whole of Turkey there are 3’000 Assyrians, and just 2’000 Greeks. There is no way to think about this population as a “threat” to the Turkish state. Yet, the state continues to put pressure on this tiny population that survived a holocaust and a century of continuous violence. 

In case this tiny civilization cannot be protected, could the political culture in the Middle East face the enormous dangers that are facing us? 

In case we ignore our past, or worst – we destroy our past – in what way could we confront our future?