Interview with Mr. Tuma Çelik: “We have the problem of claiming ourselves rather than claiming our confiscated property”

ResearchTurkey –  February 16, 2013

Syriac people are among the oldest inhabitants of Mesopotamia tracing their roots back 5000- 6000 years ago. They are as Orthodox among the first Christian churches and have lived by…

Syriac people are among the oldest inhabitants of Mesopotamia tracing their roots back 5000- 6000 years ago. They are as Orthodox among the first Christian churches and have lived by majority around the “mountain of the servants of God”, which is the meaning of Tur Abdin in Aramaic. There can still be found the oldest monasteries like Mor Gabriel, founded in 397 A.D. or Deyrulzafaran, the former patriarchate.

Even if the Lausanne Treaty granted certain rights to all “non-Muslims”, the Syriac community could never enjoy these rights in the Republic of Turkey, since they have not been granted the legal status of “minority”.  Nevertheless, until the 1980s they lived in large numbers in and around Midyat and were the majority in urban and rural areas of Midyat.

However, with the increasing clashes between the PKK and Turkish Armed Forces, most of them were forced to leave Tur Abdin area and settled in cities in Western Turkey, and some of the Syriac citizens resorted to immigrate abroad. This led to a sharp decrease of Syriac population living in Turkey. Now there are only around 2000 Syriac people linivg in the Mardin-Midyat region and approximately 15,000 in Istanbul. In recent years a modest return to the original villages from Europe has been taking place and Syriacs started to voice their demands for legal recognition.

One of the returnees and Syriac activists is Mr. Tuma Çelik from the Enhil village, Yemişli in Turkish, near Midyat. In 1974 at the age of 10 he left his home village to continue school in Istanbul where he lived until 1985 when he moved to Switzerland. In Europe, Çelik became an activist for Syriac rights and culture. He contributed to journals like “Renyo Hiro” and “Qenneshrin” and is among the founders of “Suroyo TV”, which broadcasts in Aramaic from Sweden.

So far he has published two books and was involved in the preparation of the book “The Syriac People in the Mesopotamian Civilization”, which was published in 2008. Since 2010, Mr. Tuma Çelik is again mostly in Turkey and in the recent months he founded the monthly Sabro paper in Midyat, which for the first time in Turkey publishes both in Turkish and Aramaic.

He is its owner and the editor-in-chief at the same time he is in the board of the European Syriac Union (ESU), as a representative of the Syriac people living in Turkey. As Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), we had an exclusive interview with Mr. Tuma Çelik. We talked about his own experiences as a Syriac, the problems of the Syriac people in Turkey, the Patriarchate in Syria, Syriac people’s problems of immigration, language and existence, Mor Gabriel trials and how the Syriacs view Turkey in general. Please find below on short summary of the interview and the full text:

 ‘Once upon a time there were official Syriac schools in Turkey…’

Let us start with history. Up until 1928 there were official Syriac schools in Turkey. Was the language of education Aramaic in those schools? Which institution was responsible for the preparation of course materials? In what languages were the course materials prepared? According to which laws did these schools operate between 1923 and 1928 and why were they closed?

Syriac schools continued to operate in the Republican era until 1928 according to our “nation” status we had had in the Ottoman Empire. In the official Syriac schools, education was offered according to a specific directive and curricula. Course materials prepared by churches and patriarchates were taught by Syriac teachers. Even though we have the legal status of a minority according to the Lausanne Treaty, the Republic of Turkey has never allowed us to enjoy these rights. This is why the “official” Syriac schools were closed when the Republic started to exercise full sovereignty in each and every field of daily life. In 1928 there were two official Syriac schools, one in Diyarbakır and the other in Mardin.  In rural areas there were tens of Syriac schools (madrasas) in churches and monasteries giving especially religious and language education. But these schools did not have official bases. That is why the education given in these schools continued in a secret form later. Sometimes some of the students who received their education in these madrasas used to go to neighboring countries with Syriac schools to continue their education.

‘A symbolic attempt that would re-value the Syriac Orthodox Church…

Until 1930, The Patriarchate was in Turkey. Why did it move to Damascus? How many people left the Tur Abdin together with the Patriarchate? Is there a discussion concerning the return of Syriac people to Turkey because of the clashes in Syria? How real do you regard such a possibility?

The Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate was in the Deyrulzafaran Monastery in Mardin. The Syriac Catholic Patriarchate was at the center of Mardin. The building of the Catholic Patriarchate was confiscated during the first years of the Republic and later turned into a museum. Therefore, the Patriarch has never lived in Turkey after the foundation of the Republic.

In contrast, the Syriac Orthodox patriarch lived in the Zafaran Monastery until 1930. After leaving Turkey, he lived in India for a while and died there. His successor, Hımıs (Syria) Metropolitan Afram Bar Sawme was not allowed to enter Turkey, and from that moment on the center of the Patriarchate has been in Syria.

There have been ongoing debates regarding the Patriarchate’s return to Turkey for few years. I think that each part involved in these debates has different purposes. I support such a development, since it would mean a symbolic attempt that would re-value the Syriac Orthodox Church. But I think that it will take time, because everybody has different framework of demands. The first and foremost criterion is to have an atmosphere where each and every part can trust one another. As a result, I think that the return of Patriarchate to Turkey would lead enthusiasm and synergy in terms of the return to the country.

“Language of Jesus is spoken by around 8000 people, but only 500 of them are able to write it!”

How many people in Turkey are able to actively speak Aramaic in their daily interacts? What about this situation in Tur Abdin region? What kind of attempts are or will be made to transfer Aramaic language to the next generations?

I guess in Turkey the number of people who actively speak Aramaic in their daily lives is about 8000. However, a serious amount of them, approximately 7500, don’t know how to read and write in Aramaic. The vast majority of those, who are able to read and write in Aramaic, live in Tur Abdin. When we think that there are around 18,000 Syriacs in Istanbul, only 3000 of them can speak in Aramaic and only 200 are able to read and write in Aramaic. The rest lives in Tur Abdin.

One of the most important reasons that enabled the survival of Aramaic for centuries in Turkey was that the churches and monasteries existed. They offered education in “secret” madrasas in rural regions. The conditions in the past were very difficult for Syriac community. In the past, for our children and youth there were not many options of activity. Therefore, they could spend their time remaining after schools in these madrasas. There were no other languages than Aramaic spoken at homes. However, with increasing wave of “modernization”, it is not possible to hold on to our habits. Today, our children and youth are increasingly socialized and they are taking part in official education. Other languages have started to enter our homes through television. The more the use of Aramaic language in social life and education narrows down, the less likely language survives. The only way to get rid of this challenge and to have wholesome Aramaic education is to have legal guarantees for the education in mother tongues.

“The relations involving Syriac people as a party, be it Syriac-Kurdish or Syriac-Muslim, always developed against the Syriac community”

How do you evaluate the Syriac -Kurdish and Syriac- Muslim relations? How were they in the past? How are they now? What is the reaction of the Kurdish population concerning the return? Do the Syriacs still feel under threat?

In Tur Abdin, the Syriac-Kurdish relations are not too old. The history of the relations goes back to 350 years ago. The relations with Muslims, in general, are about 1000 years old. However, the relations involving Syriac people as a party, be it Syriac-Kurdish or Syriac-Muslim, always developed against the Syriac community. The cycle of visibility was asymmetrical in the sense that increasing geographic, economic, political and social space of the Kurdish and Muslim population resulted with the decreasing visibility of Syriac people. Nowadays, we as Syriacs think that we are left in a very narrow space. And we experience this situation also concerning the return.

The Syriacs thought of returning back one day to their homes, while they were immigrating. That is why they left a big portion of their valuables as they were. However, a great majority of our neighbors did not think we would return. That is why they confiscated our properties. In this respect the returns causes certain problems in some regions.

But we shouldn’t forget this either: The struggle of the Kurdish people during the past 30 years, have prepared the basis for improvements in Syriac-Kurdish relations in the region. That is why these problems are more present in areas where feudal relations are dominant. At the same time this means that the relations are going towards more positive direction. There aren’t any mixed marriages which are accepted by the society. However, despite the societal reactions, we can speak of one or two mixed marriages.

In the last national elections, Erol Dora, who was a member of Turkish Syriac community, was elected as deputy of Mardin. This was a critical juncture in the sense that for first time in Turkish history, a Syriac origined deputy participated in the national parliament. What does the election of Erol Dora mean for Syriacs? Should we consider this as an important development that would enhance the self-confidence of Syriac community? Or do you think that this exception would not make much difference? According to you, does Dora represent the Syriac community and its interests in parliament?

Erol Dora’s presence in the Turkish Grand National Assembly is, for sure, an important event. First and foremost it has increased the visibility of Syriacs in Turkey. Yes, even if little, it has also increased the self-confidence of Syriac people and have started to question the past with a little louder voice. In my opinion, it is also important that, this step was taken by a political party – Peace and Democracy Party (BDP)-  which is identified with Kurdish identity. With this critical step the Kurdish-Syriac relations were again started to be dealt with and evaluated.

This should be known. Erol Dora is a member of BDP and he is in the parliament with the votes of the Kurdish people who are affiliated with the BDP. He definitely puts our problems and demands in the agenda and struggles for them, but he is not the official representative of the Syriac people and also he himself underlines this point this at every occasion.

‘Mor Gabriel is just one of the legal problems, because legally speaking the Syriac community in Turkey is not recognized.’

Actually I have difficulties in making sense of the developments in the Mor Gabriel trials. There is obviously a serious illicit situation. Despite the fact that it does not cause anything but economic, political, national and international damage for Turkey, this lawless situation is continuing. Sometimes I am putting myself in the shoes of those who are taking decisions and I could not see anything serving for Turkey.  That is why I am sure that when the case is brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), it will give a verdict against Turkey. We hear that there are ongoing negotiations behind closed doors to make sure that we will not apply to ECHR. This gives me the impression that what is going on is a game of “making oneself accepted by the other side.” State, government and local forces have not witnessed any opposition from Syriacs. I think this might be the reason to insist in the wrong doing. Because these mentioned powers, did or made done everything they wished, right or wrong, to the Syriacs. Now, in contrast, maybe for the first time in Turkish history, the Syriacs say that the wishes of these powers are wrong and we are opposing them.

In short, for me it is impossible to look at the Mor Gabriel trials with a right and straight logic and to evaluate them on such a basis. That is also why I don’t really know what the villagers and the Treasury wants to do with these plots.

Do you have other legal problems, concerning the foundations or property?

Looking at the problems of the Syriacs in Turkey, the Mor Gabriel trials are as unimportant as a ‘drop in the ocean’. Legally speaking Syriac community is not recognized. This is by itself a source of the problems. Even if we have very limited official foundations, the problems are plenty. Many of our churches and monasteries have been struggling with problems because they are in the rural areas and not registered. In Tur Abdin, which is regarded as the centre of the Syriacs in Turkey, and in Hakkari region, the cadastre works done within a very short period when the Syriac people were not yet ready which led many violations of rights. To overcome these violations the use of the existing legal ways is difficult. They are expensive and need some courage.

 ‘Education at mother tongue in Syriac schools is certainly a demand. And even an indispensable one!’

Are Syriac schools a demand? If so, who voices it and what kind of implementation is desired? Could not an Syriac foundation, under the current legal conditions, open a school?

The most basic demand of the Syriacs is recognition. The Syriacs in Turkey are not recognized and this is why the evaluation of their rights changes from the persons’ point of view. Initially, this has to be dealt with.

Education at mother tongue in Syriac schools is certainly a demand. And even an indispensable one. Currently the Syriac church foundation in Istanbul is voicing this demand and gets the support from the whole Syriac community. The correct implementation would be the expression of our demands by a well- organized Syriac foundation set up by the Syriacs themselves with a particular organizational structure. Within the current legal framework it is not possible that an Syriac foundation opens a Syriac school.

Were the properties belonging to Syriac foundations confiscated? If so did you apply to claim them back?

As I said, Syriac people lived predominantly in the rural areas and in the places where the official registers were at the lowest level. On top of that they lived through 1915.Thus, many churches, monasteries and properties belonging to them were not registered. And even worse, in 1915, at many places, there are no more Syriacs left who could claim the mentioned property. For example, in Siirt the Chaldean-Catholic Church Bishopry building and a huge monastery belonging to it, was occupied by others because there was nobody left to claim it.

Currently, we have the problem of claiming ourselves rather than claiming our confiscated property”

In Turkey, religious communities do not have legal personalities. Does the Syriac community propose anything to cope with this?  Is anybody working on it?No. But we have an effort to be accepted as an official identity and to be legal recognized. I think, the problem of religious identity could be solved in this framework.

‘60 families completely returned from abroad and 100 families are partly returning’

How many people have completely returned? Did they return to their original villages or to other places, including Istanbul?

Today, approximately 60 Syriac families have returned to Turkey from Europe. Most of them returned to Tur Abdin. Beside them, there are also some who spend most of the lives (10 months in a year approximately) in Turkey and Tur Abdin. This group is estimated to be 100 families. They have restored their houses in the villages or build new houses and made certain economic investments. Yes, almost all of them returned to the villages they were born in.

After having lived in Sweden or Germany, how is the situation for the youth?

The youth, who returned from abroad certainly, had problems in Tur Abdin. That is the reason why some youngsters who could not accustom themselves, separated from their families and moved back to Europe. I think the major reason for this is the difference between European countries and Tur Abdin in terms of the social life.

‘Currently there exist no economic problems in any sense.’

What kind of jobs are the returnees doing? What are their sources of income?

All work the fields that their families owned. Besides this, some are also active with new investments in various fields such as construction, tourism and husbandry. There are also families occupied with trade. Those returning to Turkey came together with what they built up abroad. That is why currently there exist no economic problems in any sense.

Are there problems with citizenship? Are the Syriac men in the right age expected to do their military service? Are there also some who live in Turkey with foreign passports?

The problems concerning citizenship are not completely solved yet. Yes, men have to do their military service or pay a certain amount. If not, they lose their Turkish Republic citizenship. There are Syriacs who do not want to lose their citizenship of countries like Germany which do not grant dual citizenship to immigrants; therefore they live with these passports in Turkey. There are many who are in this situation.‘The monthly “Sabro” has a circulation of 3000 … Our first goal is to be institutionalized and then to publish our newspaper quarterly.’

What is the circulation of Sabro, the newspaper you founded? Do you have plans to have a website? How many people work for it, how many people write articles for it?

3000 issues of the Sabro paper are printed and distributed. Approximately 800 issues are sent by mail to subscribers. Approximately 1000 newspapers are distributed in Tur Abdin. The rest is sent to different places in Turkey.

We don’t have a schedule to turn it into a weekly journal. Our first goal is to be institutionalized and then to publish our newspaper quarterly. To be able to do this, we need economic sources. We have not managed this issue yet, which means that our newspaper currently cannot cover the costs. That is why we need to solve the economic problems to be able to come out weekly or quarterly. To be updated, what communication nowadays means, you definitely need a website. But to do this and update it on regular basis you need some funding. As I said, we have not yet sorted out our economic problems and therefore do not plan something like that.

At the newspaper 5 persons work voluntarily without expecting any payoff. Some are helping with technical issues, some prepare news, and others write opinion pieces or translate from Turkish to Aramaic. Beside them, there are also colleagues who contribute with articles.

Eight people continually write articles. Other than them, there are some people who write once in a while.

‘If Turkey wants to exist in the future, she is obliged to accept all the differences and to assure their survival.’

This year you also launched a website, named: . How is the reaction? What are your future plans? As it is grasped from the title [we grew up together in this country], you emphasize the sense of unity. During the process of working on website, do you really experience such a situation that despite all differences, you work in peace and harmony? Was there really a living together, or was it rather living side by side? Can you see in the future a state and society accepting differences?

When setting up the website we were thinking of a short term. But we saw that there is a real interest so we decided to continue. The interest was not just following our website and participating in our causes by signing. Very interesting comments are being made. That showed us that “there was the need for something like that.” As a result we might change the function, but the website will continue.

We chose this name out of many alternatives together with friends that we worked all along the way with. There was then not much discussion about it. From the reactions we get, I can also say that we made the right decision.

As for the second question, the answer is: first and foremost it depends on what we understand from unity. If living together is to share life and to influence developments in economic, social and political areas, then yes, there is a living together. But this does not mean that the state perceive us as a “biological child”. We are not the only community that the state does not treat as the “biological child”. Today unfortunately nobody besides “the sovereigns of the system” is “biological children” and unfortunately is under pressure.

However, if Turkey wants to exist in the future, she needs to accept all the differences and to assure their survival. If this is not achieved, I don’t believe that Turkey has a chance to live on. Related to this, I think that Turkey will change in the future. That is why I do believe that a state and a society, which will accept differences, is possible and I am struggling for that.

Mr. Çelik, thank you very much for this interview. You have given a detailed and important review of the problems of Syriac people in Turkey.

I thank you for helping us to make our voice heard. I wish success to ResearchTurkey.

Please cite this publication as follows: ResearchTurkey (February, 2013), “Interview with Mr. Tuma Çelik: “We have the problem of claiming ourselves rather than claiming our confiscated property””, Vol. I, Issue 12, pp.14-22, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (