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The Letter of the Archbishops of Tur'Abdin and Istanbul
to the President of the Republic of Turkey
about the status of Aramean Miniority in Turkey

Midyat, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

[Date: 27.03.1995]  

To the High Office of the Presidency of the Republic of Turkey

Cankaya Palace - Ankara  

regarding the Syriani community and the rights and petitions of the Syriani citizens of the Turkish Republic.

[...] The Syrianis were one of the first peoples to accept Christianity. It cannot be said that the Syrianis founded a State since the time of the Mesopotamian kingdoms, the last of which was the Abgar kingdom in Edessa (present day Urfa in Turkey) which exercised sovereignty from 132 BC to 52 AD. But as a community they have lived for many centuries, right up until our day. Syriac is not only one of the oldest languages of history, it also has deeply influenced both Arabic and Hebrew. The Syrianis have done serious work in philosophy, theology, and natural sciences. They have positively influenced the successive civilizations in the region.

In our day, Syrianis live in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. But we cannot minimize the fact that Syrianis have emigrated from Turkey to the countries of North and South America, Australia, and Europe. At the present, the most populous Syriani community lives in India. This community reads and writes, observes prayers and liturgy in Syriac. The Syriani community of India numbers about three million. They began when a group of four hundred emigrated from Edessa to India for the purpose of mission. The Indians who were christianized and embraced the faith, religion, and culture of the Syrianis were then called by that name themselves. However there are about 100,000 Syrianis in India who came from the original 400 Syrianis, and did not assimilate into the Indian Syrian community, but rather preserved their particular social-cultural identity which they brought from Edessa. They are known as the "Kenanians".

As the first Christians, the Syrianis became founders of Orthodoxy. However, after the Council of Chalcedon (Kadikoy), and especially after the separation between the Roman Catholic and Byzantine Orthodox churches, the Syrianis kept themselves independent of both of these ecclesiastical establishments. Because of this position, like other Anatolian Churches not committed to the Byzantine Church, and even more so, the Syrianis experienced oppression and persecution. Their spiritual leaders were exiled, thrown into prison, and killed. The goal was to secure Syriani obedience to the official imperial faith and the political authority which that faith represented.

One does not err when one says that the rapid Turkification of East and Southeast Anatolia in the Selcuk times was attributable to the wide tolerance of the Turks toward various religious beliefs.

During Ottoman times the same tolerance continued. Religious groups, called "Millet"s made use of freedom of religion and conscience as much as possible, used their own alphabet, carried on education in their own language, and always found opportunity to protect and develop their own culture. In the Ottoman State, Syrianis were accepted as a Millet (religious community), and according to statute had privileges, even in those times, concerning religion and worship, education and culture.

At the end of the First World War, lower Mesopotamia was occupied by the British and therefore the Modros Armistice was signed. The Allied powers determined their united view as to how the Ottoman empire was to be divided out among them at the Paris Conference. Representatives of the Turkish Parliament and its Government, which had never accepted the Treaty of Sèvres, met with representatives of the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania, Serb-Coat-Slovak states. The result was the signing of the Lausanne Treaty on the 24th of July, 1923.

The Lausanne Treaty has 340 articles, and effectively transfers into the realm of domestic law. It is one of the important legal foundations of the young Turkish Republic. With regard to Minorities, the 37th to the 45th articles carry the attributes of constitutional law.

Truly, after the break up of the Ottoman Empire, the young Turkish Republic took an honoured place among the community of nations. Inspite of the massive population changes that took place after the Lausanne Treaty, the Ottoman mosaic was transferred to the young Turkish Republic as an inheritance.

And so the 37th to the 45th articles of the Lausanne Treaty coming under the heading of "The Protection of Minorities", concerns the preservation of this mosaic. In the Third Section of the treaty the subject is Non-Muslim Minorities.

The Syriani community in Turkey is a Non-Muslim community with a significant population. This community, even in the Ottoman times, was known and accepted as a Millet with equal status to the Rum (translator's note: ethnic Greeks of Turkey, are called hereafter in this document by the Turkish and Syriac designation "Rum") and the Armenian communities. During the time of the National Pact and the Lausanne conference, in addition to the Rum, Jewish, and Armenian communities, the Syriani, Chaldean, and Yezidi communities were accepted as non-Muslim minorities in the Ottoman (Turkish) courts.

The fifth article of the National Pact, accepted by the last Ottoman Legislature reads thus:

"We will accept and secure the minority rights in the form defined by the Allied powers and their enemies and a few other of their partners in the agreements made with regard to this subject, in the belief that Muslim minorities in neighbouring countries will enjoy the same rights."

Before Lausanne, the leader of the Turkish Commission, Ismet Inönü specified, "According to the Fifth Article of the National Pact, some special rights could be given to the minorities in Turkey".

Finally, a comprehensive framework for the rights of Non-Muslim minorities in Turkey was drawn up in the form of the 37th to the 45th Articles of the Third Section of the Lausanne Treaty.

Inspite of this, in practice, it is evident that the Syriani community has not been able to make as much use of these rights - rights which the Armenian, Rum, and Jewish communities have enjoyed. The Syriani community has not been able to live as an essential element of the nation, nor as a minority. it has even been thought that the Syrianis are not a minority.

A criminal case was opened against the publisher of a calendar and greeting cards printed in the Syriac language and alphabet, making use of Law number 2932, called Laws Regarding Publications in Languages Other than Turkish; which law, since the advent of the anti Terror Law number 3713, article 23, has been invalidated. This case was handled by our defence attorney Cent Karacaoglu in the Beyoglu Lower Criminal Court. On the 24th of December, 1985, with decision number 1985/1055, legal precedent number 1984/237, the publisher was acquitted with the argument, that, "Syriac publications are covered under the framework of the laws in the 38th, 39th, and 40th articles of the Lausanne Treaty." It is clear that the Syrianis are included in the 37th to the 45th articles of the Lausanne Treaty, whether from the text of the articles or from the judgement of the court to which we refer. We, as the Syriani community carry the belief that it will be useful to bring these laws into real life.

This community which carries a cultural heritage of centuries, is not able to work on their language, religion and culture where they are; so they are leaving their geographical homeland and settling in the big cities of Turkey and in European nations. The result of this is that we are beginning to lose an important part of Anatolian culture. Whether from the point of view of the loss of this choice  place of the Anatolian mosaic, or from the point of view of law and human rights, as the Syriani community we have some desires, hopes and expectations of the State of the Republic of Turkey: Including all of the Syriani citizens of the Republic of Turkey in our petition, we want to present the following issues:

The necessity has arisen to offer our petition to your High Level for the required steps to be taken to fulfil the following:

1. That, according to the articles under the heading of "The Protection of Minorities" in the Third Section of the Lausanne Treaty, permissions be given for this community to use their language, alphabet, perform education in their language, open primary, middle, and high schools, and put them into action.

2. That protection, and prevention of the occupation or destruction of Syriani village churches, ancient monasteries, homes, vineyards, gardens, fields, and lands which the Syrianis have had to abandon due to the military operations in the region or for other reasons, be secured; and that permission is granted for the repair of churches and monasteries where restoration is felt to be needed.

3. That, due to the migration, the increasingly dense population of Syrianis in Istanbul which worship in only one church of their own, and share limited time and space in the churches that are owned by other congregations, be granted permission for church construction and opening of worship in Istanbul; and that other concentrations of Syriani population be granted the same.

4. That , since clergy are not being trained, and it is difficult to find clergy to provide worship in Syriac for this community who worships in that language, permission be given for the opening of religious education schools and courses that train clergy, and for bringing clergy from abroad to   read in worship and/or give religious instruction.

5. That, since Syriani students, like other Non-Muslim students, are not obligated to attend the religious [Islam] culture and morals lessons required in the primary and middle school; but since there are no Syriani minority schools, and in the schools where these classes are given there is no convenient place for non-attending students to stay during the time the lessons are in session; and therefore the Syriani students are forced to wait in the class and as a result attend the lessons; since the right to not attend the lesson [about ethic of Islam] is in fact not now usable, we ask that a separate place be provided where the Syriani students can be, so that they do not have to attend.

6. That the seizure in customs religious and holy books in Syriac (Aramaic, Chaldean), ordered and brought from abroad be prevented.

7. That bureaucratic barriers to the development of Syriani Foundations be lifted so that they may actually function, and that permission be given for the founding of new congressional foundations.  

With our respects,  

Timotheos Samuel AKTAS                                                                                        Filuksinos Yusuf CETIN
Archbishop of Turabdin                                                                                    Archbishop of Istanbul and Ankara

(Translator's note: "Syriani", though not generally used in English, will be used in this translation. The term "Syrian Orthodox" would limit the community religiously, and the term "ethnic Syrian" would misleadingly associate the community with Syria. The term "Syriani" is what the communities who offered this document call themselves, and it seems to be the most appropriate term to describe their identity in Turkey.).

Published the first time in SOL

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