Göttingen (AINA) -- Tilman Zülch, the founder and long-time Secretary General of the Society for Endangered People (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker e.V. - GfbV), died on March 17, 2023 in Göttingen at the age of 83. He led the international organization for several decades.
Zülch is regarded a visionary in human rights work. His view of the fate of persecuted ethnic and religious minorities as well as indigenous peoples, his selfless commitment against genocide and expulsion are exemplary for international human rights work today. Together with Klaus Guercke, Zülch founded the Aktion Biafra-Hilfe in 1968, from which the GfbV emerged. He developed the Society into one of the largest human rights organizations in Europe, counting over 30,000 supporters, with chapters in Austria, Switzerland and other countries.
With Zülch at the helm of the Society, the organization campaigned for ethnic minorities "of whom no one speaks", as the title of one of the books published by Zülch says. Since 1970, the GfbV has been continuously committed to the case of Assyrian Christians in the Middle East. Tilman Zülch in person not only had excellent insight into the Assyrian situation in the different states of the Middle East, he also had very close personal friendships with the Assyrians and their organization in Germany since their establishment as a migrant minority.
The first contacts were established through the Berlin Assyrian Union, an association founded by Assyrian students in the early 1970s. First reports on the situation of the Assyrians appeared in the Society's magazine 'Pogrom'. In 1978, the Society published a monograph by German orientalist Gabriele Yonan entitled Assyrians Today. Culture, Language, National Movement of the Aramaic-Speaking Christians in the Middle East. Persecution and Exile.1. This was one of the first books that made the ethnic group known in the German-speaking world. In his remarks to the book, Tilman Zülch wrote in 1978 that:
The extermination and expulsion of about two million Armenians in the first quarter of our century has been somewhat imprinted in our historical and political consciousness. However, the hundreds of thousands of victims among the Aramaic-speaking Christian ethnic group of Assyrians alongside the Armenians during this period and afterwards have remained unnoticed until today. Thus, also the existence of an Assyrian people in the Near East is known at most to Middle East experts. Even church circles know mostly only about the Christian churches of Syriac tradition....Therefore, this first volume of the series pogrom in book form will not only report about the persecution and oppression of the Assyrian people, but also about their current culture, the development of their churches, their history and their national movement.
Together with other comprehensive documentation by Dr. Gabriele Yonan on the situation of the Assyrians in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Lebanon, which the Society published in the course of the wave of emigration and flight of the Assyrians from Tur Abdin in the 1980-90s, the book Assyrians Today has rendered invaluable services in making the situation of Assyrians known in Germany and contributed to its recognition as a persecuted ethnic group in Europe. During the Turkish military's struggle against the Kurdish PKK in 1984-1999, the Assyrians in southeastern Turkey were caught between the Turks and Kurds. Their overwhelming majority fled to Central and Northern Europe. Several tens of thousands settled in Germany. During my work at the Federal Office for the Recognition of Foreign Refugees in Zirndorf at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, where every asylum seeker was questioned about his individual asylum case, Gabriele Yonan's book, published by the GfbV, was an important source of information for the officials of the Federal Office.
In 1989, the Society for Endangered People also published the pioneering book A Forgotten Holocaust - the Extermination of the Christian Assyrians in Turkey2, also by Gabriele Yonan, which addressed the extermination of the Christian Assyrians in the late Ottoman Empire in Turkey and documented the tragedy for the first time based on source material from international archives. In this book, Yonan also addressed the German responsibility as an ally of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. The foreword for this book too was written by Tilman Zülch.
In 2000, the priest of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Diyarbakir, Yusuf Akbulut, was arrested and charged by the Turkish authorities for his statements on the Assyrian genocide. The Society for Endangered People sent its its Assyrian activist and later board member and Vice Chairwoman Janet Abraham as an observer to the two court hearings. The case had come to the attention of the international community. Finally, the Turkish government persuaded the court in Diyarbakir to drop the charges against the priest in 2001.
It would be beyond the scope of this article to list all the commitment of the Society and of Tilman Zülch drom an Assyrian perspective. In a short obituary, the Assyrian Federation in Germany calls him an "international greatness in the defense of human rights and minority rights worldwide." The obituary concludes with the words "We are grateful to Tilman Zülch and the Society for Endangered People for their tireless efforts in helping and supporting the Assyrians, both in Germany and in their home countries. Tilman Zülch will always be honored and remain in our hearts."
1 Yonan, Gabriele: Assyrer heute. Kultur, Sprache, Nationalbewegung der aramäisch sprechenden Christen im Nahen Osten. Verfolgung und Exil. Vorbemerkung von Tilman Zülch. Hamburg und Wien. Reihe Pogrom, Die Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker, 1978. 238 Seiten.
2 Yonan, Gabriele: Ein vergessener Holocaust - Die Vernichtung der christlichen Assyrer in der Türkei. Hamburg und Wien Reihe Pogrom, Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker, 1989, 422 Seiten, Zweite Auflage: 2006 mit einem Vorwort von Abdulmesih BarAbraham.