Turkey is one of the nations that has the highest amount of persecution targeting its Christian citizens. The decades-long Christian persecution in the country includes a genocide, a pog0rom, deportations, unlawful confiscations of property, official and non-official discrimination, as well as destruction of cultural and religious heritage, among others. The organization Open Doors explains what Christian persecution looks like in Turkey:
“Nationalism and Islam are intrinsically linked and anyone who is not a Muslim, particularly someone who openly lives out a different faith, is seen to be a disloyal Turk. Christians are therefore not regarded as full members of Turkish society.”
Severe Christian persecution in the country has led to a collapse in the population of the community. Although most Christians could not live in safety and peace in Turkey, many of those who left to stay alive have thrived in the West. One of them is Attiya Gamri, an Assyrian-Dutch political leader serving as a minister in North- Holland, government for the PvdA (Labor Party).
Gamri was born in the village of Arbo close to the town of Midyat in Tur Abdin, the Assyrian heartland of southeast Turkey. Gamri has been involved in Assyrian causes from a young age. She is a founding member of the Assyrian Federation of the Netherlands and was the first chairwoman of the Assyrian Confederation of Europe. Since 1997, she has been involved in politics in the Netherlands.
Today Gamri lives near Amsterdam and serves as a local minister at the Department of Social Care and Construction for the Labor Party.
In an interview with this author, Gamri said her Assyrian family left Turkey in 1980. When I asked her the reason, she responded:
“Because of the war between the Turkish military and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in the region, there was no protection for Assyrians from the Turkish government. The Assyrians had no friends and were defenseless in the face of persecution in Turkey.”
Gamri relates a personal story:
“I remember my mother would travel to the town center to sell eggs. But locals, who were Muslim Kurds, attacked and harassed us. My mother was always anxious that they would hurt her children. We did not feel safe. We saw our people killed and persecuted every day. So we had to leave our lands.
“We Assyrians were not a participant in the war between the PKK and the Turkish Army. Yet, Turkey did not provide us with rights, security, or protection. Everybody could go to the region where we lived and kill us as much as they could without being held accountable for their actions, or they could seize our properties whenever they wanted, and we could do nothing. We had nowhere to go for legal justice or safety – not even the courts or the police. We could have been killed any time; the situation was not safe at all, particularly for Assyrian children.”
Witnessing the injustices Assyrians were exposed to in Turkey motivated Gamri to become a political leader:
“My grandfather was the mayor of the Assyrian village of Arbo in southeast Turkey. My mother told me a lot about him. I learned from his life story that political leaders can make a difference for their people. And beside this, I have seen how Kurdish men mistreated and hurt my mother, and other Assyrians in southeast Turkey. I remember asking my mother many times ‘why do they hurt us?’
“She could not answer my question, and this made a lot of impact on my thinking as I grew up. I saw how my people were persecuted for their religion and ethnicity. It was so unjust and unfair. I decided to change this situation as much as I could for Assyrians. So I wanted to learn how to help my people. And I’ve learnt a lot about political advocacy in the Netherlands and Europe, and I can say that I understand the situation of the Assyrians much better now.”
1894-1924 Christian Genocide in Turkey
Between 1894 and 1924, three waves of genocidal violence were committed against Christians across Ottoman Turkey. Those indigenous Christians had previously accounted for 20 percent of the population. By 1924, they were reduced to 2 percent. Today, Christians comprise only around 0.1 percent of Turkey’s whole population. Christian persecution has never ended in Turkey.
The victims of the genocide were the Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks. Assyrians are an ancient, indigenous people in the Middle East who ruled the world’s largest empire from 900 B.C.E. to 600 B.C.E. They have contributed tremendously to civilization in fields such as written language, literature, the invention of the 360-degree circle, the law, as well as building roads, and are credited with many other technological, artistic, and architectural achievements.
Assyrians were also one of the first peoples to embrace Christianity and due to their faith, they were subject to numerous atrocities over the following centuries.
Today, Assyrians are stateless and persecuted in countries where they reside: mainly Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey.
Most Assyrians are Christian and speak Assyrian (also known as Syriac, Aramaic, or neo-Aramaic), one of the world’s oldest languages and the language of Jesus.
“Turkey’s Armenian, Greek and Assyrian (or Syriac) communities disappeared as a result of a staggered campaign of genocide beginning in 1894, perpetrated against them by their Muslim neighbors. By 1924, the Christian communities of Turkey and its adjacent territories had been destroyed.”
Joseph Yacoub, whose family was murdered and dispersed, wrote the 2016 book Year of the Sword: The Assyrian Christian Genocide — A History, documenting “the systematic killings, looting, rape, kidnapping and deportations that destroyed countless communities and created a vast refugee diaspora.”
Assyrians call the genocide “Seyfo,” which means “sword” in their native language, or “Shato D’Seyfo,” meaning “Year of the Sword.” Many victims were killed by the sword of the Turks or Kurds in the region.
Violence and discrimination against Assyrians did not end after the genocide. In 1923-24, Assyrians in Hakkari were exposed to yet another massacre and deportation by the Turkish military. According to the book “The Hakkari Massacres: Ethnic Cleansing by Turkey 1924-25” by Dr Racho Donef,
“The events that transpired in the province of Hakkâri were tantamount to a crime against humanity and the Turkish Republic was responsible for this crime. Officers and soldiers… committed despicable acts such as massacres, rape and looting.”
Moreover, after the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, Assyrians were not officially recognized by the government. Scholar Susanne Güsten wrote a comprehensive report about the modern history of Assyrians/Syriacs in Turkey, entitled “A Farewell to Tur Abdin.” She noted:
“Unlike Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, the Syriacs [Assyrians] have never been recognized by the Turkish state as a non-Muslim minority under the Treaty of Lausanne. As a result, they were not granted even the limited minority rights accorded to those groups, such as schools and the right to safeguard their language and culture.”
Ayse Günaysu, a prominent human rights advocate from Turkey, visited Tur Abdin in 2019 and noted that the atrocities committed for decades against Assyrians following the genocide included murders, the kidnapping of girls, the beating of Assyrians in the streets, injuring them, threats, harassment, intimidation tactics, as well as seizing their fields, homes, forests and other properties.
Sizable Assyrian communities still lived in southeast Turkey until the 1990s when the war between the Turkish military and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) escalated. Assyrians got stuck between the two forces and had to leave their historic lands when their villages were burnt or evacuated by the Turkish military. Assyrians were also targeted and persecuted by their own Muslim neighbors, many of whom were Kurdish.
Gamri says that many Assyrians in the West would like to return to their ancestral lands in Turkey.
“If Assyrians were granted wider human rights and better legal protection in Turkey, many Assyrians would return. But currently, the lack of safety and human rights constitute a major problem.”
In May, Gamri attended as a speaker the “Tur Abdin Symposium” in southeast Turkey. The participants discussed many issues about the past and present of the region. See Gamri’s opening remarks here.
Gamri emphasizes the significance of dialogue with Turks and Kurds.
“I always try to engage in dialogue with people when I visit Turkey. Some just run away from us. They are in denial or completely clueless, or they listen. And I find this very inspiring. I really want to help them understand the true history of Turkey and what the State and society of Turkey have done to Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks, Yazidis, and other minorities. Those minorities are currently on the verge of extinction in Turkey.
“There are many highly educated, beautiful people in Turkey as well as the Turkish and Kurdish diasporas. Through a genuine dialogue and understanding of history based on honesty and truthfulness, I believe many Turks and Kurds could change their minds and hearts. And some are already aware of many facts regarding Turkey’s history and crimes committed against Christians and Yazidis.
“A Kurdish man in Diyarbakir, for instance, told me his Muslim grandfather had kidnapped an Assyrian girl from a village. And she had to convert to Islam. She could not tell anyone she was Christian. That girl was his grandmother. He was so sad, he apologized to me. He told me: ‘We are Assyrian Muslims. We were Kurdified and Islamized after the 1915 Genocide. Assyrian Christians had two options: either convert to Islam or die. In the face of such fatal pressure, the head of the village decided they needed to be Muslim to stay alive.’ I told him I was happy he had the courage to speak about these painful injustices. These conversations, accepting truths in humility, will heal Kurds and Turks too. There were tears in his eyes.
“I really want Turkey to be a country like the Netherlands where citizens are treated equally, fairly and humanly. The only way for Turkey to become a free and civilized nation is for its citizens to recognize their own past and current atrocities and make amends. For if you don’t face your history, the same atrocious history will be your future.”
“I, as a migrant child in the Netherlands, never felt fear there. The Netherlands has given me endless opportunities and motivated me to work hard and be a government minister. I was an indigenous child in Tur Abdin, where my ancestors have lived for thousands of years. But I was anxious there as I saw how my family and my people suffered. I remember living in fear as a child in Tur Abdin as I saw what Muslim locals did to my people.
“But when I returned to Tur Abdin years later as a Dutch citizen with my two children, I saw that my children were totally unafraid. I think this is the difference between growing up as an oppressed child in a tyrannical environment and a free child who grew up in a safe European nation. I hope with all my heart that Turkey will one day reach the same level of human rights and liberties as Europe.
“Today, a lot of Turks and Kurds are suffering at the hands of the Turkish government. Their rights are violated, and their freedoms are restricted. So I think they can now start establishing more empathy with us. We really should build a new country together – a freer, more civilized one for all its citizens. And the beginning of this is learning about and acknowledging historical truths.
“This is a long and challenging path. The Turkish educational system and historiography is largely shaped by distortions and mistruths. But this situation can’t stay like this together. Turks and Kurds deserve and need to know the truth. And the truth shall set them free.”