The Christian minority is once again being put under pressure in Turkey. During the first half of January, the Syriac Orthodox Abbot Aho Bilecen and two parishioners were arrested in Tur Abdin, a mountain range in southeastern Turkey. They were released from police custody a few days later, but other Christians were arrested. Tur Abdin is considered a former Christian stronghold. Volker Niggewöhner of the international pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) talked with the priest Dr Slavomir Dadas, chair of the “Initiative Christlicher Orient” (Initiative for the Christian Orient) in Linz, Austria, about how the current situation developed.
ACN: You have excellent contacts in Tur Abdin. How are the three Christians doing who were arrested and then released?
Slavomir Dadas: They are doing as well as can be expected – in spite of the uncertainty, which of course still prevails. The people arrested were the Abbot of the Syriac Orthodox monastery Mor Yakub d’Karno and two mayors. The Abbot was in police custody for four days, one of the mayors was released after two days, the other after one day.
Why were the three men taken into custody?
It has been reported that a Kurdish PKK fighter defected to the Turkish army. He allegedly informed them that the Abbot and the two others had handed out food to a number of PKK fighters a few years ago. This is automatically interpreted as providing support for terrorism and led to their arrest. However, no one actually saw the official transcript of the statements made by the former fighter.
This shows a deep unease on the part of the security authorities…
The people living in Tur Abdin told me that, unfortunately, this happens regularly every few years. The Christians do not feel welcome in their own homeland and have to endure frequent harassment. Placing the Abbot in police custody for four days is really an extreme measure. We have also been informed that a Christian couple has now been arrested, apparently because of a disagreement over property rights.
Tur Abdin is located near the borders with Syria and Iraq. To what degree is and was the region affected by the armed conflicts going on in these countries?
Many refugees came to Tur Abdin during the war in Iraq. However, the refugee camps there are mostly empty now. The refugees have moved on or were simply relocated.
You mentioned that Christians were being harassed. In general, has their situation in Turkey changed at all over the last few years?
The biggest problem, particularly in Tur Abdin, is that the people can no longer envisage a future for themselves in the region. It is said that almost 50,000 Christians were living there about 50 years ago. When I recently visited the area, they were talking about only 2,500 Christians.
Turkey is a large country. Does a Christian lead a better life in Istanbul than in Tur Abdin?
Yes. I believe that Christians in Istanbul enjoy more freedom. In Tur Abdin, they seem to be regarded as a problem because the area itself is considered a Christian region. This is not acceptable in a Muslim country. However, I have also seen it happen that, when tourists visit the monastic centres in Tur Abdin, this also awakens the interest of the Muslims. They admire the culture and the history of the monasteries and convents. At least in terms of culture, this has set a few things in motion on the part of the Muslims. But nothing has happened from a socio-political perspective.
A large exodus from Tur Abdin already took place in the 1980s. At the time, this was because of the fighting between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish government. Are you concerned that this will happen again should there be further military escalation?
The people living in Tur Abdin say that they are less concerned about the military situation than what is happening economically. The government has basically always left this area to its own devices. The only help it receives comes in the form of donations from organisations or from emigrants; the people living there would not be able to survive without this aid. We visited many villages during my trip to the region. The villages were once inhabited by 200 to 300 families, most of them Christians. Today, two or three families live there, mostly people who once lived in Germany or other western European countries who have now moved back to spend their retirement there. They are something like guardians of the cultural heritage and the faith there.
Do you believe that the return to Islam will progress further in Turkey and was this caused by the alienation between the EU and Turkey?
I believe that this alienation was not always intentional. However, there are a number of Muslims who have been greatly strengthened by this development. For example, several Christian villages have been occupied by Muslims and they have appropriated the houses of Christians living abroad. It is very difficult to get them back. This reflects the current situation in Tur Abdin: the people feel as though they are being “dispossessed” because there is no legal basis for this. They are losing everything they own without an actual legal basis. They are losing everything they have worked for over the course of history.