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Assyrians struggling for a primary school in Istanbul

The new school year has started this month in Turkey, but Assyrian Christians, otherwise known as Syriacs or Chaldeans, still do not have a single primary school in the country where they could learn their native language and culture.

The Istanbul-based newspaper Agos reported that the activists of the Syriac community applied to the Ministry of National Education in 2012 to get its permission and support to open a Syriac kindergarten in Istanbul. When their application was rejected, they took on a legal struggle and were finally able to open the Mor Efrem kindergarten without any economic support from the government.

The Mor Efrem kindergarten currently has 50 students and will be open for the fourth semester this year, but unfortunately, there is not a Syriac elementary school in Istanbul where its graduates would be able to enroll.

The Virgin Mary Ancient Syriac Church Foundation in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul is still struggling to open a Syriac elementary school in the city. The officials of the foundation stated that it is impossible for them to open an elementary school without governmental support.

Sait Susin, the head of the foundation, said: “We started our preparations for the school but we are faced with a huge financial burden. It is impossible for us to overcome it, not even with donations. We do need economic support.”

Susin added that their most important need is a building and if the government provides it for them, they will be able to afford other costs. “We have applied to the ministry for that, but we still haven’t received a result,” said Susin.

Assyrians are a Christian people indigenous to the Middle East. Istanbul has an Assyrian community, estimated in around 15,000, but the number is only an approximation. The Turkish government does not officially recognize Assyrians as a distinct ethnic community, so it does not conduct a census on them.

However, in the Ottoman Empire in 1913-1914, there were 2,580 schools belonging to non-Muslims, 29 were Assyrian schools. The last Assyrian school in Turkey, which was located in the city of Mardin, was closed down in 1928 and afterwards, Assyrians were not allowed by Turkish governments to open a primary school where they would be educated in their native language for the next 90 years.

The Assyrian people have inhabited the region since the beginning of recorded history and for 300 years, Assyrian kings ruled the then largest empire of the world. A stateless people today, Assyrians have been continuously brutalized by Muslims in the territory – Turks, Kurds, Arabs, and Persians. The greatest systematic violence against Assyrians and their civilization took place before, during, and at the aftermath of WWI at the hands of the Turkish regimes in what is now Turkey.

According to a report by the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights (CGHR) of the Rutgers University–Newark,
“The Assyrian people have been repeatedly victimized by genocidal assaults over the past century. They first suffered, along Ottoman Greeks and Armenians, from Turkey’s simultaneous genocides during and immediately after World War I… Massacres, rapes, plundering, cultural desecrations, and forced deportations were all endemic. Around 750,000 Assyrians died during the genocide, amounting to nearly three quarters of its prewar population. The rest were dispersed elsewhere, mostly in the Middle East.”

After the 1914-1923 genocide, Assyrian Christians were left out of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of republican Turkey and became the defining document for the rights and freedoms to be provided for the non-Muslim minorities.

However, the rights of Assyrians were not even mentioned in the treaty. And ever since, not a single Turkish government has carried out democratic reforms to change this situation and finally grant Assyrians their rights. As a result, Assyrians still do not have schools or other government-funded institutions in the country.

The persecution of Assyrians such as the plundering or expropriation of their properties continued after the Turkish republic was established in 1923 and is still going on.

In late June, for example, the Turkish government seized dozens of properties belonging to Assyrian Christians − such as churches, monasteries and cemeteries − and transferred them to public institutions.

On July 15, the Syriac monthly paper, Sabro, reported that,
“In the Sur district of Diyarbakir, a historic church belonging to Syriacs-Chaldeans as well as 12 shops and 2 homes belonging to the church foundation have been expropriated with a cabinet decree.”

In the meanwhile, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported on September 13:

“In the 15 years since St Hurmizd was founded, the Assyrian primary school in Western Sydney has grown from a cohort of 85 students, to more than 700. All of the students come from non-English speaking, Assyrian backgrounds, and nearly 200 are new refugee arrivals. Many were welcomed to Australia as part of the Government’s intake of 12,000 Iraqis and Syrians earlier this year.”

If the Australian government can provide Assyrian refugee children with a primary school, why does the Turkish government, a member of NATO and perpetual candidate for EU membership, not do the same for the indigenous Assyrian children in Turkey?

It seems that Turkey’s Assyrian community is going through the latest stage of genocide. US officials should immediately urge the Turkish government to respect the Assyrian right to education as well as their religious liberty. For the Assyrian civilization to survive, the religious and cultural values of Assyrians – and particularly their native language – should be freely used, learnt, and preserved by the community.

But it would not be very realistic to assume that the Turkish government, which is busy with seizing Assyrian properties, would soon provide Assyrians with basic human rights. Hence, it appears to be the ethical and urgent responsibility of Christian leaders in the US and across the world to support the dwindling Assyrian community in Turkey economically as well as psychologically. For if they do not do that, nobody else will. And if the current community plundering and a lack of cultural rights continue, yet another native Christian community in Turkey will eventually be extinct.