(AINA) -- In a November 18, 2000 press release, the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO) reported that Fr. Yusuf Akbulut, an Assyrian priest from St. Mary's Syrian Orthodox Church in Diyarbakir, Turkey was arrested for affirming the Assyrian Holocaust of 1915. According to the ADO release and an earlier report by Reuters, Fr. Yusuf was interviewed by reporters from the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet during deliberations in the U.S. Congress regarding HR 596, the Armenian Genocide Resolution.
The reporters apparently had hoped to quote a Christian priest denying the validity of the Assyrian-Armenian-Greek Holocaust of 1915, but instead were angrily surprised by Fr. Yusuf's defiant affirmation. Fr. Yusuf's defiance has itself surprised those who have described him as an otherwise gentle and amicable man of faith. Following the interview, the Hurriyet reporters printed an inflammatory article with a photograph of Fr. Yusuf holding a cross under the headline "A Traitor Amongst Us."
Fr. Yusuf is now being held by the Turkish military and faces charges of treason in an upcoming December 21, 2000 trial. If convicted, Fr. Yusuf may face the death penalty. The ADO release follows a Reuters report from October 5 which reported Fr. Yusuf's arrest but quoted Turkish police as incorrectly stating that Fr. Yusuf had been released by a prosecutor.
The extraordinarily angry and belligerent tone of the ADO press release described Turkey's arrest of Fr. Yusuf and the subsequent threats against the Assyrian community as a whole as underscoring Turkey's "insecurity in dealing with its bloody past." Moreover, the ADO mocked Turkey's attempt to join the European Union, stating "Now clamoring to join the European Union, Turkey continues to demonstrate a primitive, draconian approach to historical and political debate with a penchant for brutality and intolerance." Turkey is even described as showing a "perverse disdain for any semblance of civility."
When asked about the potential for greater violent reprisals by Turkey against the Assyrian community, Mr. Abgar Maloul of the ADO retorted "The policy of dealing civilly with uncivilized acts has not gained us anything. The previous policy of appeasement for the purpose of survival has thus far failed." Commenting further, Mr. Maloul added "In the past twenty-five years our population in southeast Turkey has been literally more than decimated from over 130,000 to less than 5,000."
In fact, the dire situation of Turkey's Assyrians has been summarized by Mr. Abelfattah Amor, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance who wrote:
"In a communication dated 5 September 1994, the Special Rapporteur transmitted the following observations to the government of Turkey:
According to information received, the Assyro-Chaldean minority are suffering serious violations, in particular in the area of religious tolerance. In religious matters, their freedoms are being curtailed and Muslim religious education is compulsory for this Christian minority. In the monasteries, activities have been cut back and made subject to prior supervision of the authorities. In practice, the right to build new churches cannot be exercised. The Assyro-Chaldeans have no schools, even at primary level, or social institutions; they are forbidden to open their own establishments. They are banned from public service.
They are also reported to be victims of regular attacks by armed individuals and groups who not only rob them of their property and abduct their daughters, but also perpetrate murder, thereby creating an atmosphere of fear, apparently with the aim of forcing them to leave their villages. Thus, since 1975, more than 100,000 Assyro-Chaldeans have left the country and only 10,000 remain."
To all of the above persecution and abuses, Turkey has now added that Assyrians are forbidden under threat of execution to affirm the horrors of the past or to bear witness to those now ongoing.
Although the Turkish government successfully blackmailed the U.S. government into withdrawing the Armenian Genocide Resolution, the ensuing controversy and now the threat against Fr. Yusuf have served to galvanize and strengthen the Assyrian, Armenian, and Greek communities into previously unprecedented coordination. This new combined front against the denial of the twentieth century's first Holocaust has preoccupied the Turkish government's foreign policy and domestic debate. Furthermore, Assyrians around the world are submitting their protests to Turkish and local authorities demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Fr. Yusuf.
Commenting on the failure of HR 596, Ms,. Jacklin Bejan, President of the Assyrian American Association in San Jose best summarized Turkey's "victory" when she wrote to her colleagues on October 20, 2000:
"For the past three weeks the Turkish media was inundated with 'Armenian Genocide' news. Scholars, writers and politicians scrambled and did almost nothing else but talk about the Armenian Genocide, and Turkish government's denial of it. I dare say the fear of passage of such resolution almost completely halted Turkish government's daily business, and brought a new era of awareness to the heavily guarded, steel caged and buried history of the Young Turks atrocities. According to some very recent polls over 50% of Turkish people who had never heard about this period of history, now know about the Armenian Genocide, hence awaken from a deep sleep! In three weeks a large percentage of Turks were given a history lesson that no one could teach in 85 years!"