Defending Freedom of Religion -- Protecting Christians
By Dr. Tuma Abraham
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Munich (AINA) -- For the last 20 years, the Solidarity Group of Tur Abdin and Northern Iraq (The Group in the following) has supported the Assyrian Christians (also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs) in both regions of Tur Abdin and Northern Iraq. The Group has initiated and sponsored various humanitarian projects, conducted visits and lobbied and published reports about the situation. From 24th to 25th of February, 2012, the Group held its anniversary conference with a dedicated reception at the Evangelical Academy in Tutzing, Germany. The conference was held under the slogan "Defending freedom of religion - Protecting Christians" and was attended by more than 100 people.

In his opening speech, Rev. Horst Oberkampf, member of the Board of the Solidarity Group1, welcomed many distinguished guests from politics, churches and representatives of German, European and Assyrian organizations. He especially welcomed the guests and invited speakers of the event: Archbishop Timotheus Samuel Aktas, Isa Gülten, Isa Dogdu, and the chairman of the Foundation of St. Gabriel, Kuryakos Ergün, from the monastery of St. Gabriel, Archbishop Dr. Polycarpus Augin Aydin, from St. Ephrem Monastery in Netherland, Janet Saleem Al-Kes, Chairlady of the women's Association Etana and Rev. Shmuel Nihad Maqdis of the Apostolic Church of the East from Iraq, and Heiner Bielefeldt, teaching Professor at the University of Erlangen/Nürnberg and Special Rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Commission.

Rev. Oberkampf gave a short outline of the current situation of the Assyrian Christians in Tur Abdin, south-east Turkey, who suffer from the uncertainty of continued trials against the 1600 year-old monastery of St. Gabriel. Uncertainty is also experienced with respect to the situation of the Assyrians in northern Iraq, where, after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the conflict between the different Muslim denominations of Shia and Sunni has ignited again and the Christian minority is increasingly being targeted by terrorist attacks and violence.

Emphasizing the motto of the event "Defending religious freedom -- Protecting Christians", Thomas Prieto-Peral, Consistory of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bavaria and board member of the Solidarity Group, spoke about the significance of the recent events and changes of power in the Middle East and North Africa towards a democratic development in the region and their possible implications for the Christian minorities in the respective countries. He stressed the need for the "participation of the Christians for social transition, side by side with the moderate and liberal Muslim majorities in the Middle East, in order to contribute to the political and social restructuring of the region". The Solidarity Group sees its role herein "as a mediator and hub to the Eastern Churches" he said, and that the Group "feels bound in its responsibility for people in distress".

Rev. Shmuel Nihad Maqdis of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, Baghdad, relayed the blessings of his Archbishop Mar Gewargis Sliva and his congregation. In his report, Rev. Shmuel described the adversity, which he, as a priest, is confronted with on a daily basis in Baghdad. As a major problem, he pointed to the "lack of respect and understanding for other people and towards other religions in particular." As a serving priest, he is leading a church community that "no longer sees itself as a respected part of the country's society," and is increasingly driven into exclusion. Priests, as well as prominent leaders of the community, are abducted or killed. Prior 2003, the diocese could count 6,000 families with more than 24,000 persons; now only 4,000 people remained.

Ms. Janet Saleem Al-Kes, the Chairwoman of the Etana, a women's association in Mosul, reported in her speech on the situation of women in Iraq, a "situation that is characterized by dramatic deterioration since the American invasion in 2003." While "education, employment and basic rights are not guaranteed, lives of all women in Iraq are determined by Sharia." she said. Despite a clearer legal and more democratic practice in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, "the situation of the women is not much better" there, she continued. Furthermore, Ms. Saleem described the work of Etana, which organizes political, professional, business and medical training for women in Iraq.

In his speech, Archbishop Timotheus Samuel Aktas, head of the monastery of St. Gabriel, described the events of the recent past, where the ongoing legal suits against the monastery stood in the foreground. He pointed to "numerous irregularities in the legal process" and outlined the political background to the allegations against the monastery. The archbishop mentioned that during a meeting with the Turkish Prime Minister Mr. Erdogan and President Mr. Gül, it was hinted that the engagement of the Assyrians in the diaspora for the recognition of the genocide is one reason for the legal charges against the monastery. The Archbishop reported further on the important support, which the monastery has experienced from many European politicians, diplomats, NGOs and Churches in this matter.

Furthermore, the Archbishop also reported about positive developments in Tur Abdin: The reopening of the monastery of Mor Augin, the election of the Assyrian deputy Erol Dora to the Turkish parliament on the list of the Kurdish Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), the renovation work at numerous Syrian-Othodox Churches, which became available again for worship. In addition, the Archbishop mentioned that several symposia were held in the region on the situation of the Assyrians and other ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey, where the genocide topic was also discussed openly.

Overall, the Archbishop expressed skepticism about the positive developments for Christians in the region and questioned the sincerity of the political reforms. As explanation, he listed various issues, like the ongoing controversy regarding the Turkish school history text books, where Assyrians are depicted as rebels and traitors (AINA 10-2-2011), the lack of legal certainty and protection for the Assyrians who have been victims of harassment, and also the afore-mentioned trials against the monastery. The Archbishop concluded with a heartfelt thank you and "congratulations for the 20 years of moral and material support and assistance by the Solidarity Group," and characterized "the positive developments in Tur Abdin as fruits of the efforts" of the Group.

The first day of the conference concluded with a solemn reception, which was framed by short speeches. Rev. Oberkampf briefly spoke about the genesis of Solidarity Group of Tur Abdin and Northern Iraq. He recalled receiving a letter from Dr. Hans Holleweger in late 1991, who's initiative "Friends of Tur Abdin" had initiated some projects. In early 1992, two friends, "Issa Hanna and Abdulmesih BarAbraham organized the very first meeting in the city of Augsburg" and "invited both of us along with lecturer Isa Garis from the monastery of Mar Gabriel and Rev. Bitris Shushe" from Augsburg to discuss the formation of the new group, he said. This brought together various initiatives. Rev. Oberkampf continued with a brief review of two decades of travel, meetings and projects of the Solidary Group.

Subsequently, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt spoke on the legal situation of religious minorities in Middle East including Syria, Iraq and Turkey. He characterized the prevailing problems as being of "structural nature," such as "lack of infrastructure for minorities in order to execute their religion freely as well as the bureaucratic and legal obstacles to building such structures." Problems of "social nature, such as climate of exclusion, suspicion and hysteria against other faiths complement the structural problems." he continued. He described "the international criticism regarding violations of human rights abuses necessary," as human rights are "binding under international law for all nations," but emphasized that "social change towards a liberal society have to come from inside of those societies."

Professor Bielefeldt finally described the different viewpoints of minorities in Turkey as a point of conflict. He compared the old, hierarchical and pluralistic millet system of the Ottoman Empire with the Kemalist concept of an egalitarian pluralism which offers no place for minorities. According to this view, the edition of the Lausanne Treaty, which in itself makes it difficult to deal with the minority issues, is the reason for minorities to exist at all. Consequently, these concepts contradict the international understanding of human rights.

The next speaker, Michael Martin, head of the ecclesiastical council of the Evangelical Church in Bavaria, gave a brief review on the cooperation of Solidarity Group with the Evangelical Church of Bavaria. The official part of the evening ended with closing remarks by Archbishop Timotheus, who expressed his gratitude to the Solidarity Group for the enduring friendship and true Christian solidarity. He mentioned the extremely difficult situation of the Christians in Tur Abdin in the 1980s and 1990s, citing the invaluable help of the Solidarity Group which, in those "dark days" gave hope to the people in the region and supported projects the future of Tur Abdin.

The second day began with an ecumenical (Evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox) prayer in the morning celebrated by Rev. Vatter. The following panel, moderated by Rev. John Minkus from the Evangelical Church of Bavaria, featured Janet Saleem Al-Tes, Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt, and lecturer Isa Gülten as panel members. The discussion was focused on the future prospects of Christians in the Middle East and what they should or can do to make their voice heard. Despite the ongoing uprising and change for more democracy, the situation was described as being rather grim for the Christians. The "Arab spring" is seen rather as an "Islamic spring" and the growing tribalism in the Middle East was interpreted as a consequence of the destabilization and the lost of confidence in public institutions of the Arab states.

The only realistic chance for Christians in the region is to work with the moderate and liberal Muslim forces and other minorities to participate in the democratic restructuring of the societies. References of such collaboration were mentioned from Iraq (where Assyrian Parties collaborate with other political parties) and Turkey; in the latter case, Erol Dora made it into the Turkish parliament on the list of the pro-Kurdish party. Independently, the importance of solidarity between the various Eastern churches in the region was deemed to be crucial, along with the support of institutions and churches from Europe.

The conference ended with final remarks of Rev. Horst Oberkampf, expressing his gratitude for cooperation and support.

1 Members of the Board are Janet Abraham, Rev. Horst Oberkampf, Thomas Prieto-Peral, Prof. Dr. Shabo Talay, and Rev. Ernst Ludwig Vatter.

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