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Turkey: What happens when non-Muslim citizens return

What happens when non-Muslim citizens who fled discrimination or persecution finally attempt to return to Turkey, a NATO member?

Recent news of a Yazidi man in southeast Turkey provides an answer. Süleyman Özmen (63) tried returning to his village in Mardin’s Midyat district after over 40 years. He was attacked by Muslim locals and government-funded village guards on February 12. Özmen said the attackers stated that “We are the state” and put a gun to his head, according to the Mesopotamia Agency.

Özmen is one of many Yazidis and other non-Muslims from Turkey who left their ancestral homeland due to pressure and persecution. Özmen started repairing his family’s house in the village of Kfernas (Çayırlı) in Midyat two years ago, anticipating a return.

Özmen said that while he was repairing his family’s house in the village, he was approached by six people with a scoop. This included government-funded village guards, who asked him to leave the village. Özmen added that he was subjected to insults by the village guards with guns after he said that he would settle in the village.

The wall he built around his house was destroyed by the scoop as he was battered, Ozmen said. He then went to the Midyat State Hospital to receive a medical report of assault, and filed a criminal complaint at the local prosecutor’s office.

Özmen said:

I have been trying to settle in my village for years, but the people who say that they are children of tribal chieftains [Kurdish ‘aghas’] do not allow me to enter the village by bringing the village guards with them. They say that we have no place in the village. [But] we have title deeds. Our homes are in ruins. We want to repair our homes and settle down there but they won’t let us.

Özmen said that he was attacked by the same people when attempting to return home in 2003, 2004 and 2005. At one point, he was treated at the hospital for three weeks.

Özmen, however, could be considered “lucky,” as he is still alive. An elderly Christian couple who attempted to return to their ancestral village went missing last year. Hurmuz Diril (72) and Şimuni Diril (65) are Assyrian Christians who lived in the village of Mehr/Kovankaya in Şırnak province before their disappearance on January 11, 2020. Two months later, Şimuni Diril was found dead by her children in a nearby river. There has since been no news concerning the whereabouts of Hurmuz Diril.

Both Assyrians and Yazidis are indigenous peoples of the Middle East. They have been persecuted throughout the centuries in what is now called Turkey since the Turkish takeover of the region beginning in the eleventh century. During the 1914-23 Armenian genocide, Assyrians, Greeks and Yazidis were targeted by both Turks and Kurds.

“In addition to the Armenians,” writes Dr. Maria Six-Hohenbalken, “demographically smaller groups of Christian denominations as well as non-Christian groups such as the Yezidi were targeted by the politics of annihilation. It is nearly impossible to know the number of the victims; about 12,000 Yezidis managed to find refuge in Armenia, where they established a diasporic community in the Soviet realm.”

Following the genocide, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne concluded World War I and established the borders of post-Ottoman Turkey. It also granted some rights to religious minorities, but excluded Assyrians, Yazidis and Alevis.

Pressures against religious minorities have continued unabated. The conflicts between the Turkish military and the Kurdish PKK in the 1980s and 1990s have turned southeast Turkey into an even more unsafe and unstable region for minorities. The Minority Rights Groups International reports that Assyrians in Turkey:

[S]uffered forced evictions, mass displacement and the burning down of their homes and villages. Internally displaced people (IDPs) were not offered adequate compensation or provided with alternative housing. 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.

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.

Massacres against Christians and Yazidis in the wider region continue to this day. In 2014, for instance, both Assyrians and Yazidis in Iraq were exposed to genocide at the hands of ISIS. As a result, they have become internally displaced people (IDPs) in Iraq and Syria, or refugees in many countries across the world.

Persecution against these communities, however, did not start with ISIS. Yazidis say they have suffered and survived 74 genocides in their history. According to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), from 339 to 1992, there was a massacre against Assyrians every fifty years. Yazidi and Assyrian peoples have for centuries been struggling not just for their unique ethno-religious identities, but for their very existence in their own ancient lands.

These communities are not only deprived of their right to self-rule in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East. Their basic human rights – including their right to life – are also systematically violated. In Turkey, many non-Muslim citizens who wish to return to their country are discriminated against, receive threats, and sometimes even kidnapped and murdered.

In her thesis entitled “The Assyrians/Syriacs of Turkey: A forgotten people,” scholar Jenny Thomsen quotes the “Turkey 2017 Progress Report” by the Commission of the European Communities, saying:

The Assyrians continue to be “invisible” as a minority and their situation in the country is characterized by assaults and restricted rights and freedoms.

Why is this the case, though? Why is it considered acceptable when Muslim nations forcibly capture lands historically belonging to Christians and destroy their heritage? But why are Christian nations not allowed to practice their inalienable rights on their own indigenous territories and to preserve their heritage at the expense of hostile Muslim ones? Why are non-Muslim natives systematically expelled from certain parts of the world where they are seen as “unwelcome” or “unacceptable”? Are non-Muslims not equal human beings when compared to Muslims?

Apparently, they are not – at least not in the eyes of many in the Muslim world, including the Turkish government, which still does not provide its non-Muslim citizens with full rights and freedoms.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.

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