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Turkey Uncensored: Assyrian Christians Targeted in Turkey, Iraq and Syria

The brutal invasions and massacres committed by Islamic militants have deeply affected Assyrian Christians in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

The Islamic State has repeatedly targeted Assyrians in Iraq and Syria in recent years, even carrying out a suicide bomb attack against the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Qamishli. “These attacks have deeply affected Assyrians in Turkey, as well,” said Erkan Metin, an Assyrian human rights lawyer in Turkey. Metin added,

Hundreds of Assyriansamong them two of our metropolitan bishopswere kidnapped by terrorists in Syria and Iraq. So many of our people have been murdered. So many of our historic artifacts and churches have been destroyed. Mosulwhich we consider our historic capitalhas been invaded, followed by mass expulsions of Assyrians from the region. These incidents make Assyrians in Turkey fear they could be targeted by the Islamic State or another similar jihadist group at any time. Assyrians in Turkey are worried. They have serious concerns about their future in this country. Political and social developments in Turkey also make Assyrians feel even more unsafe and vulnerable.

Last year, pamphlets threatening those who celebrate Christmas were distributed all across the country in an organized manner. And some government officials are increasingly making religiously discriminatory statements in public or on the social media. There is far more racist graffiti on church walls than there were previously. 

What is even worse is that jihadist organizations such as the Islamic State can easily organize in Turkey and increase the number of their members. I have observed that the threats against Assyrians are on the rise as the Islamic State intensifies its attacks in Turkey. Despite all the daily threats and more, there are no precautions Assyrians could take to protect themselves. They just try to be less visible and to provide security during church services.

But Metin said that he believes the Turkish government must fight much harder than it does against jihadist groups.

“When we look at the court files relating to ISIS attacks in Turkey, we see that the attackers had been monitored by intelligence authorities, but the authorities did not do what was required of them,” he said. “That means that many attacks could have been prevented, had the security and intelligence officials done their job.”

The Assyrians, an ancient ethnic group of Mesopotamia, converted to Christianity through St. Thomas the Apostle. Throughout history, they have been exposed to many massacres at the hands of Muslim armies or governments.

A massive attack took place during the First World War when the Ottoman Empire ruled the region. Assyrians were slaughtered [1] or forcibly deported by Ottoman Turks during the genocide of Christians between 1915 and 1923. But even after the “secular” Turkish republic was established in 1923, the persecution of Assyrians continued.

“Around 95 percent of Assyrians have left Turkey because of persecution and displacement,” Minority Rights Group International reported [2].

Approximately 25,000 Assyrians are estimated to remain in Turkey today, largely due to the fact that Western forces have left Assyrians to the tender mercies of Muslim governments and their Muslim residents. Turkey also now houses approximately 45,000 Assyrian Christian refugees who have been displaced from their homes in Iraq.

Assyrians were first abandoned by the British, who had promised them a homeland in return for their participation in World War I. Yet again, they were left out of the 1924 Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of republican Turkey. “Assyrians,” scholar Fred Aprim wrote [3], “were not allowed to participate at Lausanne, as Great Britain stood in their way. The Lausanne Treaty contained many stipulations with regard to ‘the protection of minorities’ and specified that the minorities were the ‘non-Muslim minorities.’ The Turkish government never respected those provisions.”

The legal rights of Assyrians were not even mentioned in the Lausanne Treaty; because of that absence, Assyrians still have neither schools nor government-funded institutions in Turkey.

Speaking at the Lausanne Conference, Lord George Curzon said [3], “Insofar as they are now settled within the borders of British influence, they [Assyrians] are assured of our friendly interest and protection.” Aprim noted that, “as history witnessed – when, within a year of its independence, the Iraqi army in 1933 slaughtered Assyrians – the British promise of protection had vanished.”

Decades later, Assyrian Christians – devoid of a free and safe homeland – are again being targeted.

The proposal of Robert Nicholson, the executive director of The Philos Project, for establishing a “Nineveh Plain Province” for religious minorities is of vital importance.

In an article [4] co-written with Andrew Doran and Chris Seiple, Nicholson described the gravity of having a plan for protecting the minority communities in the Middle East:

Christians and other minorities are the most forgotten and most vulnerable people in the region. They are caught in the crossfire, targeted because of their religious beliefs and ethnicity, and are being killed or forced from their homes in record numbers. These minorities are not strangers to the Middle East; they are in fact the indigenous peoples, the “first nations,” of the regionAssyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Turkmen, and otherswho have lived in Mesopotamia for centuries and, in some cases, millennia.

By recognizing a new province for Iraq’s most vulnerable communities, the United States and its international partners should work to secure and revitalize the region and ensure that these communities will survive and flourish in their historic homeland. The Nineveh Plain Province, once recognized, will provide a model of freedom, coexistence and rule of law in Iraq, such that American and coalition forces’ lives were not given in vain. This model might also pave the way for the creation of similar constructs in post-conflict Syria, where many of the same complex, interrelated issues exist.

The West abandoned Assyrian Christians during World War I and the Ottoman genocide of Christians that accompanied it. The West also excluded Assyrians from the Lausanne Treaty, which failed to provide Assyrians with Turkish governmental protection.

At least today, the West should finally speak out for and take action to protect this ancient and persecuted community and other religious minorities from Islamic aggression.