Since January 11, an elderly Assyrian Christian couple, Hurmuz Diril (71) and his wife Şimoni (65), have been missing from the Assyrian village of Mehr, Kovankaya in the province of Sirnak, in Turkey's southeast. In wintry, sub-zero conditions, their children, followed by military special units, have been searching for them.
"We found out that my parents were missing when I and my relatives... went to our village on January 12. My father's uncle last saw them in the morning of January 11.... And my brother last spoke to them on January 7," the couple's son, Father Adday Remzi Diril told the newspaper Cumhuriyet.
Father Diril is an Assyrian-Chaldean priest in Istanbul and well known for his life of service to more than 7,000 Iraqi Christian refugees displaced throughout Turkey.
"A neighbor of ours in the village initially did not tell us my parents were kidnapped because he was scared," Diril told the Mesopotamia News Agency, "but later said they had been kidnapped by armed men."
An investigation concerning the missing couple is underway; the prosecutor's office in Sirnak has issued a gag order regarding the matter. The Turkish authorities, Diril said, are in touch with the family. The weather conditions, though, have been treacherous and the search so far unsuccessful.
The news of the kidnapping came after the arrest of Father Aho Sefer Bilecen, a well-known Assyrian monk at the monastery, Dayro d'Mor Yakoub d'Qarno, in Mardin in southeast Turkey and two other Assyrians, Josef Yar and Musa Tastekin, on January 10 for allegedly "aiding the PKK". The monk and the two Assyrians were later released on judicial control, pending trial.
According to the monk's lawyer, Mustafa Vefa, Bileçen said:
"I give food to whoever comes to my door. I need to do so as per my religion and philosophy. As I am a priest, I cannot lie. I am not doing this in the name of helping an organization, but instead as per my belief. Philosophically, I cannot also denounce someone. This is also the case in terms of religion. I do not step outside the monastery anyway."
Sirnak and Mardin are in Turabdin, the ancient stronghold of the Assyrian-Syriac Church in southeastern Turkey, where Assyrians, an indigenous people of the area, have been living for millennia. Assyrians were victims of genocide under the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1923, "leaving 300,000 Assyrians dead and innumerable women abducted," according to author Mardean Isaac. Even after the genocide, however, the Assyrians continued to suffer. The Minority Rights Groups International reports:
"During the 1990s, reports by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations documented the ongoing persecution of Assyrians in Turkey, including abductions (including of priests), forced conversions to Islam through rape and forced marriage, and murders.
"... They suffered forced evictions, mass displacement and the burning down of their homes and villages.... The displaced were not allowed to return to their homes until 1999.
"In June 1994, the Assyrian Democratic Organization and Human Rights Without Frontiers issued a joint file at a press conference at the Belgian Parliament that listed 200 Assyrian villages destroyed in Turkey in the previous 30 years and a list of 24 Assyrians assassinated in Turkey since 1990.
"These pressures, and other more insidious forms of discrimination, have decimated the community."
One of the families who returned to their ancient homeland was the Diril couple, who began rebuilding their village about five years ago despite all the dangers from the terror groups in the area and the conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK. Their son, Remzi Diril, said:
"Our village was first evacuated in 1989 during the conflicts between the PKK and the Turkish army. Back then there were 80 houses there. In 1992, four families returned to the village. In 1994, the village was evacuated again. Most residents went to Europe. We have been visiting our village since 2010.
"Our village is ancient. We have churches and monasteries there. It is a rocky area. Everyone is curious about this place. Right now, we are suspicious of everyone. We do not have any specific information."
Assyrians are a stateless people exposed to decades-long persecution in the Middle East. Sadly, they have been left alone by the West amid wars, conflicts and massacres in the region. If the kidnapping of the Diril couple were to terrorize the remaining Assyrian community in Turkey into fleeing the country, it would mark the complete annihilation of yet another native community in the region. Such a tragedy should not be allowed to happen.
Western governments should use all their resources to help find this elderly couple and hold those responsible to account.