The Sincerity of Turkey's Democracy?
The Case of the Indigenous Aramean (Syriac)
Johny Messo is President of the Syriac Universal Alliance
15 November 2010 - Issue : 911
From the outside, today’s Turkey appears as if it differs
markedly from yesterday’s Turkey. However, one should always
bear in mind that not everything that shines is gold. As a
result of the decision made in December 2004 by the European
Union (EU) to start the accession negotiations with Turkey, the
recent years have witnessed a series of widely acclaimed reform
packages and constitutional amendments in this ever more
de-Christianized, Islamified state.
Despite these developments, most experts agree that Turkey still
has a long way to go in order to achieve “stability of
institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human
rights, respect for and protection of minorities.” In the case
of the Aramean people, this part of the Copenhagen criteria,
which form the basis in the negotiation process with candidate
countries since 1993, exposes Turkey’s apparent lack of
commitment to Europe’s values.
1. The Aramean (Syriac) People of Turkey
Most politicians, journalists, writers and activists are not
familiar with the Aramean people and their historical presence
in Southeast Turkey. Briefly, five facts are worth stressing:
Contrary to the Turks and the Kurds, who as latecomers are
foreign to Southeast Turkey, the Arameans and their Aramaic
language are indigenous to this countryside, as corroborated by
written evidence dating back to the 12th century B.C.
Rather than a religious community, the Arameans are a people or
stateless nation, and this is how their vast majority
increasingly perceive and call themselves. In Turkey, the
ethno-religious Arameans historically consist of the Syriac
(Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant), Chaldean and Nestorian (or:
The Syriac Orthodox Patriarch aptly wrote about the synonymy of
their names: “The Syriac language is the Aramaic language
itself, and the Arameans are the Syrians themselves. He who has
made a distinction between them has erred.” There exists an
academic consensus on this issue, as there also is one that
states that ‘Assyrian’ is a historically unfounded and
politicized name that was invented in the 19th century.
As a result of systematic ethnic cleansing, land theft,
persecutions and discrimination by the Turkish State, often with
the help of Kurdish auxiliaries, the Arameans fled from their
homeland. Today some 25,000 Arameans reside in Turkey, among
whom circa 2,500 souls have remained in Southeast Turkey. The
number of Aramean Europeans substantially exceeds the number of
Arameans in this region.
In the diaspora, particularly in Europe, the Arameans have
tasted the delights of true democracy, freedom and equal
citizenship. In the secularized and free West, secular
organizations emerged in addition to the churches and
monasteries aiming at organizing, defending and representing the
Aramean people and their rights.
2. The Aramean Question in Turkey
The Aramean Question in Turkey consists of past and present
cases of many human rights violations which have never been
addressed by Turkey or the international community. Due to
limited space, only four sub-questions will be mentioned. Rather
than elaborating them, as experts have done many times before,
it has been decided to ask Turkey reasonable questions which
represent the voice and the desire of the Aramean people. It is
hoped that this will initiate an official dialogue with
the Turkish Government, conceivably coordinated by the EU.
2.1 Lack of Recognition & Legal Status
1. What is Turkey’s position on recognizing the Arameans as a
‘minority’, in conformity with international law and the
Lausanne Treaty from 1923, much like the Greeks, Armenians and
Jews, so that they are allowed to establish their own schools,
teach their Aramaic language and freely practice their Christian
2. What is Turkey’s view on recognizing the Arameans as an
‘indigenous people’, in keeping with the
Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples signed by Turkey
in 2007 and explicitly stated in Resolution 1704 of the
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe?
2.2 Illegal Land Occupation
3. What is Turkey’s stance towards the continuation of the
illegal expropriation by the State of huge amounts of land
historically and legally belonging to the Arameans, as affirmed
by the European Union and the Parliamentary Assembly of the
Council of Europe?
4. When will Turkey end the delays of court cases, noted by the
European Court of Human Rights
Annual Report 2009, that Aramean monasteries, villages and
proprietors are facing?
2.3 Endangered Aramaic Cultural Heritage
5. Is the Turkish Government willing to take any responsibility
in restoring, safeguarding, developing and promoting the
endangered Aramaic cultural heritage of Southeast Turkey?
6. Is the Turkish Government prepared to assist and facilitate
the Arameans who originate from Turkey in preserving their
threatened language, culture and identity?
2.4 Return Migration: The Future of Tur-Abdin
7. Is Turkey ready to invest structurally in its south-eastern
terrain, above all in improving the security, infrastructure and
facilities for normal life circumstances there that may draw
Aramean refugees back to the land of their ancestors?
8. Can Turkey ensure that the Tur-Abdin region in Southeast
Turkey remains populated by its original Aramean inhabitants in
the next decades, if not centuries?
3. The ball is in Turkey’s court
The Arameans have an ancient history in Turkey and are one of
the oldest Christian peoples in the world. Despite genocide,
mistreatment and discrimination, they have always remained loyal
and peaceful citizens. Noting that the Christian Arameans have
fled from their homeland and in the past decades have frequently
expressed the desire to be officially recognized by the Turkish
Government as a ‘minority’, according to the Lausanne Treaty, in
order to obtain a legal status so that they can start building
up a future in their ancestral land, Turkey can now demonstrate
how sincere its commitments to the values and principles of the
The Arameans, above all, ask for equal citizenship, based on a
new constitution that meets the standards of the EU and which
laws will effectively be implemented. They strive for the
recognition of their people and historic presence in Southeast
Turkey. They ask not to be treated as foreigners or as a
fifth-column by Turkish society, led by the mainstream media and
biased textbooks. In fact, Turkey should embrace and integrate
the native Arameans as an ambitious people who can enrich it
culturally, intellectually, spiritually and economically. With
their experience in the Western diaspora, the Arameans may even
become beneficial to Turkey in assisting Turkish society in the
continuing process of democratization.
Between the seventh and tenth centuries A.D., the Arameans
brought the Mesopotamian and Greek sciences to the Arabs who
later exported this knowledge to Europe. Perhaps with their
Christian background and as a people that has integrated most
successfully in European countries, the Arameans may once again
form a bridge between two civilizations, this time between
Turkey and the EU. In any case, the ball of democratization is
in Turkey’s court.