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Assyrian Christians increasingly move back to Turkey after more than 40 years

Turkish government’s efforts to ensure Assyrian rights encourage them to return but lack of infrastructure and security problems fail to entice the youth
In this photograph taken on 23 February 2020, members of the Assyrian Christian community arrive to attend a Sunday mass at the More Benham Kirklar Church in Mardin, south-eastern Turkey (Bulent Kilic/AFP)
Members of the Assyrian Christian community attend mass at the More Benham Kirklar Church in Mardin, south-eastern Turkey, 23 February 2020 (Bulent Kilic/AFP)
By Mehmet Algan in Mardin, Turkey

Ferhan Demirtas, an Assyrian Christian, had been living in Switzerland for nearly 53 years when he decided to move back to Turkey’s southeastern city of Mardin, where his family lived for centuries. 

He purchased a house in a village called Yemisli (Enhıl in Syriac) where churches and mosques stand together and locals speak Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, and Syriac. 

“I used to visit the village in the past. But after witnessing the progress and positive atmosphere in the area I decided to settle down permanently,” he told Middle East Eye.

“There are about 100 houses that have been rebuilt in recent years. About 1000 people were in the village visiting from Europe during the summer.”

Demirtas isn’t alone in returning to southern Turkey, especially to Mardin. They reclaim seemingly abandoned houses and farms that had once belonged to the country’s Assyrian Christian minority. 

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Assyrians have endured a history of persecution, with documented instances of mass killings and exile, particularly during the turbulent events of 1915 when the Young Turk administration seized control in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.

The plight of Assyrians was further exacerbated in the 1970s and 1980s by the eruption of violence between the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and security forces.

More recently, Assyrians faced threats from the Islamic State in Syria during the late 2010s when they experienced indiscriminate violence and became targets for abduction.

This lack of security meant many Assyrians made the difficult decision to leave the region. Locals often cite ongoing clashes as a primary factor influencing their decision to leave.

Demirtas interview with MEE
Ferhan Demirtas with his wife in Mardin in October 2023 (Mehmet Algan/MEE)

A key driver for Assyrian migration was when the leadership of the military coup in 1980 curtailed their fundamental rights.

The military-led government also changed the names of villages, from Kurdish and Syriac to new Turkish names, as part of nationalist efforts.

However, the Turkish government's treatment of minorities has been a source of controversy since the 1940s.

Christian minorities, for instance, faced attacks by mobs in Istanbul in 1955, resulting in mass emigration.

During the military junta in the 1980s, a lot of land and property owned by non-Mulsim minorities was confiscated, which further deepened the challenges faced by the Assyrian community.

Now, local demographic experts estimate that only 17,000 Assyrian Christians remain in Istanbul - and only 5000 individuals in Mardin, or Turabdin, as it is called in Syriac. 

But still, their numbers have grown in recent years thanks to a reduction in violence in the region, as well as the Turkish government’s steps to encourage the return of Assyrians to their homeland. 

Assurances by the state

Gabriel Akyuz, a historian and priest who leads the Syriac Orthodox Kirklar Church in Mardin, said construction is underway in more than 40 Assyrian villages in the province.

He is among a handful of Assyrians who have remained in Turkey. 

“Returns to Turkey have increased significantly in the last 25 years, with the state's highest authorities giving assurances to Assyrians that they can safely return to their country,” he told MEE.

“What the ruling AK Party government - especially President Recep Tayyip Erdogan - has done to ensure the return of Assyrians is admirable.” 

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Akyuz said that the government has ended the bureaucratic difficulties experienced by Christian communities.

It has also approved the opening of a Syriac language and literature department at Mardin Artuklu University, which currently accepts undergraduate and graduate students, including doctoral ones.

Akyuz says this is a symbolic - but important - recognition of local Assyrians by the state. 

“My son Mihail Akyuz is also a lecturer at the same department,” the priest says.

“The government has returned 55 churches and monasteries remaining on treasury lands to our community.”

He added that there are still some problems. Some churches and monasteries have still not been returned. But he is hopeful that the government will resolve this as it tidies up land registry records. 

Akyuz added that the change of treatment towards the Assyrians has been stark: "We were not a well-known community in Turkey until 20-30 years ago. But now, thank God, we are known all over the country and the world," he says.

Akyuz further pointed out that the Assyrians established a “strong civilisation” in Mesopotamia, which encompasses today’s Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, after converting to Christianity in the first century BC.

He says Assyrians have made significant contributions to Islamic civilisation by translating ancient Greek writings, first into Syriac and then into Arabic, in the 8th and 9th centuries. 

Success story

Locals point out one particular village called Kafro as a success story.

Although the population crashed to zero in 1994, now, 50 residents have moved back from Europe.

Aziz Demir, a mukhtar who leads the village, which is made up of 20 renovated houses, says he was born in the village in 1967 and left for Sweden in 1985.

“I permanently returned in 2006 and never left since then,” he told MEE.

“The number of people who spend at least half of the year in the village is increasing day by day. We can see a crowd that we have not seen for two years, especially in the summer.” 

Kafro recently made a name for himself nationally by opening a chain of pizzerias run by Assyrians. Demir also opened one called "Turabdin Pizzeria" in July. 

Demir said that if peace and stability could be maintained, a significant portion of Assyrians living in Europe would return.

He believes they would make a big contribution to the development of the region and put an educated workforce back into action to benefit Turkey. 

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Fortunately, the government continues to woo the Assyrians.

President Erdogan personally approved plans to build the first-ever church of the republican era a few years ago.

In October, he attended the opening ceremony of the same church, called The Mor Ephrem Syriac Orthodox Church, in Istanbul, a city where thousands of Assyrians still live. 

Sait Susin, an Assyrian community leader in Istanbul, said Assyrians living in Europe often visit the church with "pride and tears of joy". 

“Our only church, the Virgin Mary Church in Tarlabaşı [1844], could not meet the needs of the community. A small church can't be sufficient for a population of 17,000,” he told MEE. 

Susin said it took 14 years to achieve their dream of building a new church. First, they went to the Vatican to convince them to lend their land to the Assyrians. Then they approached the government.

He praises President Erdogan’s continuous help to achieve this dream.  

“We think that the church itself is prestigious for our country,” he said. “Assyrians are one of the oldest elements of these lands, meeting their needs and being a peaceful community is a positive message to the whole world.”

Security risks

Susin said that he worries Assyrians face the danger of assimilation whenever they migrate outside their homeland, so it is very important that the community in Turkey remains strong.

But there are still security challenges that still stop Assyrians from returning home, as well as the lack of modern infrastructure, sanitation, and facilities that can be enjoyed in Europe. 

In November, unknown assailants killed 92-year-old Assyrian citizen Gevriye Akguc outside his home in Mardin soon after he moved back to his village from Istanbul with his wife.

A police investigation suggested that the motive may have been a dispute over a plot of land.

Demirtas, a resident of Yemisli, complained that there have been “systematic” robberies during the winter that targeted houses in his village. 

Sukru Aktas, a board member of Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation in Mardin, said other bureaucratic issues that make it hard for Assyrians to return, such as reclaiming plots that have been left unattended, or registered as forest land, or state land. 

“There is also the issue of citizenship," he says. "The citizenship of some Assyrians has been lost. They can come to Turkey as tourists. [But] they can only stay for three months. Those without citizenship cannot own property."

However, fortunately, Mardin, like other cities in the border provinces, does not allow foreigners to acquire property.

“There are students who want to come to our monastery as students, but they also have difficulties,” he added. 

Despite all this, Ilona Demir, a 29-year-old Assyrian, who is relatively young compared to other returnees, said when friends and relatives visit her home in Midyat, while they might arrive with preconceptions and prejudices about what life is like in Turkey, they leave with positive feelings. 

Aziz Demir is posing outside of his pizza restaurant in Turkey's Midyat in October 2023 (Mehmet Algan/MEE)

“Midyat is a socially underdeveloped place,” she said, laughing. "It may feel like going on a journey through history for young people coming from Europe. This was the reason why 15 of the 18 young people who returned haven’t stayed in Turkey and moved back to Europe.” 

Despite it all - and the seeming goodwill of the Turkish presidency - there are still those who attack the Assyrian culture in the national assembly. 

Turkish nationalist Good Party (IYI) members of parliament tried to censure and criticise George Aslan, an Assyrian Christian MP from the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Equality and Democracy Party (DEM), earlier this month for issuing a statement of congratulations on Christmas in the Syriac language during an address to the parliament.  

“This is the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, you have to speak Turkish,” shouted Lutfu Turkkan, an MP from IYI. “This isn’t your father’s farmland.”

But the Assyrians are still hopeful for their future in Turkey. 

Demir, the mukhtar and owner of a pizza restaurant, says his friends still cannot believe he permanently moved back to his village in Turkey.

“They call me crazy and laugh at me,” he said. “This is my motherland and the return of Assyrians to their lands is sacred to me.”

Akyuz, the priest, agrees and makes a bold claim.

“The Assyrians are experiencing their golden age in the history of modern Turkey,” he said. “I am ready to challenge anyone who claims otherwise.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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