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Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Evgil Türker

02 April 2020

Evgil Türker, is an Assyrian rights defender and journalist, who has dedicated much of his life to protecting the Assyrian community and culture. A leader in the Syriac community, Türker has remained steadfast in his fight to defend the rights of his community. Sustained attention and a proactive strategy by the EU and its Member States is needed to ensure Evgil Türker and other human rights defenders in Turkey can continue their work.

The portrayal of Türker’s situation is a continuation of the series, “Defending Human Rights in Turkey: Stories that Need to Be Heard,” told by Tan Tunali, with illustrations by Marco Lambooij.

A water-colour depiction of Evgil Türker

Evgil Türker’s hometown Midyat, in southeast Turkey near the Syrian border, is the centre of one of the oldest civilizations in the world—the Assyrian Christians. A tour around town is like visiting an open-air museum. Churches and monasteries carved out of the yellow limestone typical for the region are scattered across the city. Rug-making and jewellery workshops are the dominant businesses in the small town. However, underneath all this beauty, the dark sides of history lay just beneath the surface. Assyrians, an ethnic minority group of Syriac Christians, are from ancient Mesopotamia, in present day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, where some of them live today. However, the majority now lives elsewhere, with its diaspora spread across different countries. Large Assyrian communities live in European countries such as Switzerland and Germany.

In the 1980s, Türker worked as a craftsman in one of the jewellery workshops in Midyat. Upon completing his compulsory military service, following a police raid in a shared student house, he was briefly taken to custody. After his release, he left the country to live in exile, similar to many Assyrians before him. Eventually granted asylum in Switzerland, Türker travelled throughout Europe to organise Assyrian cultural events. Türker also worked as a journalist, telling the little-known story of his people in order to facilitate dialogue amongst the Assyrian diaspora. “At the time there was no channel for Assyrians, so we broadcasted on Med TV [a Kurdish satellite channel broadcasting from abroad], but later we opened our own Channel, Suroyo TV,” Türker recalled.

As citizens of the Turkish Republic we are equal under the Constitution, but the Turkish Republic has never applied this principle to its Assyrian citizens”

The reasons why Assyrians are no longer living on their homeland makes for “a long story,” Türker sighed. Central in the story is Sayfo (Sword), events which took place over a hundred years ago, during the First World War and the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Intertwined with the Armenian genocide, Safyo designated the mass slaughter of the Assyrian population within the Empire’s borders. Hundreds of thousands were killed or sent on death marches by the Young Turk government, which hand in hand with local tribesmen, embarked on a campaign of ethnic and religious cleansing.

The “Turkification” policies— first implemented by the Turkish Republic after its foundation in 1923— continued targeting Assyrians throughout history. The imposition of the Wealth Tax in 1942, which particularly targeted non-Muslim citizens, the Istanbul Pogrom of 1955, as well as anti-Christian sentiment following the Turkish intervention of Cyprus in 1974 are just some examples. “Because we are both of a different religion and a different race, the Turkish government understood we couldn’t be assimilated, so we were forced to flee again,” Türker said. Assyrians in southeast Turkey left their hometowns, first to neighbouring countries like Iraq and Syria, later to bigger cities in Turkey, and eventually to Europe, both as workers and as asylum seekers. In Turkey, due to discriminatory measures, Assyrians, and other non-Muslim minorities were left with limited opportunities. It is nearly impossible to raise through the ranks in bureaucratic jobs—a trend that continues today. “As citizens of the Turkish Republic we are equal under the Constitution, but the Turkish Republic has never applied this principle to its Assyrian citizens,” said Türker.

Many of the people who fled from areas like Qamislo had relatives living in the region. Eventually, most of them moved on to Istanbul and later moved to Europe or elsewhere”

In the beginning of this century, when the current Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) government came to power, a new era seemed to start. Türker remembered the hopeful times, explaining: “Because of the EU accession process many positive steps were taken.” Laws were passed to expand freedom of expression, facilitate the foundation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and—significant for the Assyrians who fled the country—the AKP promised to return to citizens the rights of property expropriated when they left the country. Upon invitation of the Turkish government, some Assyrians returned to their ancestral land. So did Türker, who obtained his Turkish passport again and moved back to Midyat in 2010.

Willing to use the organisational experience gained in the Assyrian diaspora, Türker was chosen as the head of the Süryani Dernekler Federasyonu (SÜDEF – Federation of Syriac Associations). Türker stressed that SÜDEF has worked with different parties across the political spectrum, from the Turkish authorities and affiliated organisations, to foreign NGO’s and oppositional parties. Shortly after Türker’s return, the war in neighbouring Syria confronted Turkey with the arrival of large numbers refugees. On behalf of SÜDEF, Türker coordinated aid and welcomed people in Midyat. “Many of the people who fled from areas like Qamislo had relatives living in the region. Eventually, most of them moved on to Istanbul and later moved to Europe or elsewhere,” Türker explained. As a result, only a small number of asylum seekers and refugees remained in Midyat.

In addition to being the head of SÜDEF, Türker also publishes articles in the monthly newspaper Sabro (Hope), with a mix of Syriac and Turkish articles, with the aim of giving the Assyrian community a voice—a minority that only has one representative in Parliament, Tuma Çelik, a member of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

An hour drive from Midyat, the Mor Gabriel monastery, established in 397 A.C., majestically stands on a hilltop. It is the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world. In 2008, the monastery was the centre of a land dispute with the Kurdish village leaders, backed by the local representative of the AKP. Swaths of land were transferred to the Turkish Treasury and to the Ministry of Agriculture (the property was eventually returned in 2017).

Assyrians started asking themselves questions: could the government be serious about our rights if they take away our land?”

“That was a real breaking point,” Türker remembered. Similar tactics were applied to other swaths of land, whose original owners were oftentimes abroad and therefore less able to challenge these expropriations. “Assyrians started asking themselves questions: could the government be serious about our rights if they take away our land?” Türker mentioned. Ahmet Türk, a veteran Kurdish politician who was elected mayor of Mardin in 2014, promised to help transfer disputed areas back to the Assyrian community. However, in 2016, Ahmet Türk was replaced by a government-appointed trustee and arrested under the State of Emergency following the 2016 coup attempt. “[The trustee] behaved as if [the land] was his father’s backyard,” Türker commented. Land was one again transferred to the Turkish Treasury, while other swaths of land which are not returned yet, are still disputed in costly court-cases.

Even though the situation of property rights worsened after the Mor Gabriel dispute, there were also hopeful times, Türker recalled, referring to the short-lived peace process in the region from 2012 to 2015 between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish State. In the fight between the two parties, the Assyrian community never took a side, but were always caught in the middle. Following the collapse of peace in 2015, fallout was severe and violence once again returned to the region, along with round-the-clock curfews. Many cities in the region turned into war-zones. (Füsun Üstel and hundreds of other Academics for Peace protested the violence with a petition—Read her story here)

Assyrians also bore the brunt of the gradual collapse of the rule of law in Turkey in recent years. Several prominent members of the community were targeted. Most recently, earlier this year Sefer Bilçen, ‘priest Aho’ of the Mor Yakup church, was arrested on charges of “aiding and abetting a terrorist organization.” After six days of detention, he was released,  but his trial goes on. Türker raised, “It’s nonsensical. How can a priest be a member of a terrorist organization? If he is the member of any organisation it would be a Christian one as the church’s leader.” Türker continues to advocate the plight of his people: “The main thing for us is to live here in safety.”