Assyrians have lived in South-Eastern Anatolia, Northern Iraq, Eastern Syria and Western Iran since times of antiquity. Living beneath the shadow of poplar and mulberry trees, and amid crimson poppies swaying in the wind they number no more than a million in the entire region. Praying as their ancestors had done for over a thousand years in small earth-coloured churches surmounted by a dome and joined by a tower with plangent church bells, the community are descendants of a once great empire.
The Assyrian empire once extended from the Zagros Mountains in the East to the coast of Lebanon. The Assyrians who are also known more generally under the umbrella terms for Nestorian Christians are not 'Christian Arabs' as some people believe, but speak a Semitic language, called Syriac. Although semblable to both Arabic and Hebrew, the language pre-dates both languages and is one of the oldest languages in the region.
The community has always been entrepreneurial, leading an active economic role in the jewellery trade in Turkey. Their presence is quite strong in the rambunctious Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Assigned to the role of 'good jewellers' the community is often overlooked by both the government and the media, which tend to focus on the situation of the more numerous Kurdish population.
Living in five mostly Muslim states in the Middle-East has often put the Assyrians in the line of fire. According to F.P.Isaac in the early part of the 20th century the Ottomans, faced with the break-up of their empire, expelled thousands of Assyrians, matters did not improve much in the secular Republic of Turkey which followed. From a presence of 130,000 Assyrians in the 1960s the number has dwindled down to 5000 today, of which only 2000 of which reside in South East of Anatolia. Faced with 'greater problems' the Turkish state policy has done little to include the Assyrians in recent years to feel apart of the secular state that Turkey purports to be. This has fuelled the steady immigration of the community abroad.
Life is not much better for the Assyrians in neighbouring countries either. The Iraqi Chaldean-Assyrian minority was one of the prime targets of the Ba'athist party for their role in collaborating with the British during their occupation of Iraq. Today in post-Ba'athist Iraq Assyrians find themselves the target of Islamic fundamentalists and insurgents who hold them to blame for the actions of the 'Christian occupiers', the Americans and the British. Faced with growing Arabisation and Kurdification of northern Iraq, Assyrians have been making a steady exit from Iraq to neighbouring Arab states and from there to the West.
In Turkey, Assyrians are recognised as a religious minority and not as an ethnic minority like the Armenians, this might seem as a simple difference in terminology but in fact it is quite a crippling status for the community. Unlike the Armenians, Assyrians still cannot teach in their own language, so this indigenous community is left manacled by the state. Being prevented from teaching one's ancestral language to future generations of that community has been one of the key factors forcing this community to leave the country in recent decades.
Fortunately, the EU factor in Turkey coupled with the end of the worst fighting between the PKK and Security Forces is beginning to provide short term benefits to small minorities like the Assyrians, as the government in Ankara seeks to harmonise many of her own policies with those of the EU. Conditions are now improving for the community, which was previously on the brink of extinction in the region. An interest in Assyrian culture and its benefits for tourism is currently been explored and even the Turkish governor now visits the community to offer his support. Five years ago during the height of violence between the PKK and the Turkish security forces this would have not been possible.
With funds from the European Union, Istanbul Bilgi University opened an Assyrian cultural centre in the town of Midyat on the 29th of April 2006 for the first time and last year the city of Mardin hosted the first international symposium of Mardin history. Some Assyrians from the diaspora have repatriated to their ancestral region in recent years.
However, many of the children of those returning diaspora can only speak Syriac and have little knowledge of Turkish, but faced with an absence of Syriac classes, they are prevented from a proper education. The absence of schools that teach Syriac is preventing the existing group from learning their community's language while on the other hand encouraging the new arrivals to forget theirs.
Without downplaying the positive reforms in Turkey, the state, which strives to be secular and a "garden of different flowers" needs not only to be cognizant of the diversity of their country but needs to put this into educational policy. Policy makers can encourage the teaching and use of minority or regional languages without being detrimental to the use of official languages. It should be government policy to promote, protect, and preserve the Indigenous languages of the republic, this would be mutually beneficial to both the ethnic group and the state in whose confines they reside.
While Assyrians are faced with uncertainty in Iraq and Iran, where insurgents are keen to destroy multiculturalism, Turkey should set a precedent by not just promoting multi-faith communities but multi-lingualism as well. Language like religion is a fundamental part of a community's identity; it is used to transmit a community's history, poetry, music and literature that will be forever lost without it. Like other minorities elsewhere without schooling in their own language, the future generations of Assyrians will be bereft of a future and unequal in their rights as Turkish citizens. The Turkish state needs to extend full citizenship to all her citizens.
By Alkan Chaglar
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