Turkey Invites Wary Minorities To Return From Exile / AN ENQUIRY

22.3.2013 – MESOP – AFP – Representatives of non-Muslims who have emigrated from Anatolia have responded to the call by Minister of Culture and Tourism Omer Celik for them to return home. They say they are hopeful but in practice, there are still many questions to answer.

President Abdullah Gul, while receiving a Syriac [Assyrian] delegation, said, “Do not forget this land.” President Gul took Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Yusuf Cetin with him on his recent visit to Sweden. Celik issued a call “to return home” to the non-Muslims who have left Anatolia. Minister of State and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc had taken Laki Vingas of the Greek community with him to Germany in 2010 and 2013.

Minority representatives agree that their inclusion in official delegations and recent statements has given them hope, but that the reality is not quite so rosy.

Sait Susin, the president of the Syriac Virgin Mary Church Foundation, discussed President Gul’s visit to Sweden. Looking at the problem from a practical viewpoint, he said, “It is hard for a child who grew up in that culture to return.” Susin said there had been many complaints about land surveys carried out after 2006, noting, “There is the question of the Mor Gabriel monastery, where laws have broken the Lausanne Treaty, a situation which is well known in school textbooks. In order for minorities to return, these issues must first be resolved.” He agreed that there have been serious improvements in last 10 years, and added, “There are problems that can be solved through dialogue. We believe that the state and government are serious.”

Evgil Turker, the chairman of the Federation of Syriac Associations, evaluated what was said by Celik during his Moscow visit. Turker said Syriacs are disappointed by legal cases pertaining to the land surveys. Syriacs were particularly upset with the ruling on the Mor Gabriel monastery. Turker, who had settled in Midyat after living abroad for many years, said he believes the sincerity of appeals by politicians, but there remains one reservation: “Christian minorities in particular are seen as traitors. Starting with the bureaucracy, they have to understand and explain the problems of Syriacs. The state banned the use of the word ‘infidel,’ but the mentality remains.”

Laki Vingas, who represents the Foundations of Minority Communities, described Celik’s remarks as “very interesting and courageous.” He went on to say, “We are in a dynamic process and there are serious openings. For years we were forced to live in isolation. Even if practical problems continue, such remarks are reaffirmations of good intentions, while they also require responsibility. Nevertheless, the adoption of such good will and policies promises to bring us joy and peace.”

According to Vingas, in practice it won’t be easy to generate an immediate response to the call to return: “You have to think of infrastructure questions. You have to clarify who you are addressing and to what period you are referring when saying ‘return.’ Never mind the 1915 altercation [with Greece], Syriac villages were evacuated not long ago. Those who want to return have problems. The Greek community at Gokceada has problems. Until a year ago, an Orthodox Christian could not buy property from a Muslim. We have been waiting for three years for the school to open. There are Armenians living in Malatya and Sivas, but they have no place of worship.”

Pay attention to problems

Priest Saliba Erden, who came to Turkey in 2004 and settled in the Basibrin village of Idil, said, “We want tranquility. We will pray for anyone who provides it.” Erden added: “They come from Europe, repair their homes but they don’t have much faith in security. They want to return but they don’t feel secure as there is no peace. We came here and live with it. We know the situation and that it is not easy to live here. Those in Europe have been asking me and I say there is still some risk. I cannot say to those who want to return, ‘All is well, come, you are welcome.’ I simply can’t say to anyone it is time to return.”

There will be no mass return

The press officer of the Union of Turks in Israel, Rafael Sadi, said, “It is a pleasant call that warms your spirits” but added that it will not be easy for those who had emigrated to return.

“Nevertheless, it is a pleasant feeling to know that the door is open. However, nobody should really expect a mass return,” he said. He drew attention to the past: “What happened in the past should not be forgotten. Will the minister say, for example, that the unfair taxes imposed under ‘Wealth Tax’ will be compensated for? Or will he say that he will restore the properties lost in the Thrace events or others which were forcibly sold for a pittance?”

A call to the Kurds

Garo Paylan, an official in Armenian institutions, said, “Those who left did not leave out of choice.” For him, a return depends primarily on amending the conditions that made it impossible for them to live on this land. Paylan, who said they cannot yet see anything concrete, suggested, “If the solution process that is much debated these days can be formulated not as a reconciliation of Kurds with Turks, but as reconciliation of all peoples who were forced to leave this land, then you may be providing the conditions that will enable the people who have been made stateless to return.” Paylan said they are awaiting just such a move both from the government and the Kurdish movement.