By Alkan Chaglar

Assyrian International News Agency, CA
June 29 2006

Assyrians have lived in South-Eastern Anatolia, Northern Iraq,
Eastern Syria and Western Iran since times of antiquity. Living
beneath the shadow of poplar and mulberry trees, and amid crimson
poppies swaying in the wind they number no more than a million in
the entire region. Praying as their ancestors had done for over a
thousand years in small earth-coloured churches surmounted by a dome
and joined by a tower with plangent church bells, the community are
descendants of a once great empire.

The Assyrian empire once extended from the Zagros Mountains in the
East to the coast of Lebanon. The Assyrians who are also known more
generally under the umbrella terms for Nestorian Christians are not
'Christian Arabs' as some people believe, but speak a Semitic language,
called Syriac. Although semblable to both Arabic and Hebrew, the
language pre-dates both languages and is one of the oldest languages
in the region.

The community has always been entrepreneurial, leading an active
economic role in the jewellery trade in Turkey. Their presence is
quite strong in the rambunctious Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Assigned
to the role of 'good jewellers' the community is often overlooked
by both the government and the media, which tend to focus on the
situation of the more numerous Kurdish population.

Living in five mostly Muslim states in the Middle-East has often
put the Assyrians in the line of fire. According to F.P.Isaac in the
early part of the 20th century the Ottomans, faced with the break-up
of their empire, expelled thousands of Assyrians, matters did not
improve much in the secular Republic of Turkey which followed. From
a presence of 130,000 Assyrians in the 1960s the number has dwindled
down to 5000 today, of which only 2000 of which reside in South
East of Anatolia. Faced with 'greater problems' the Turkish state
policy has done little to include the Assyrians in recent years to
feel apart of the secular state that Turkey purports to be. This has
fuelled the steady immigration of the community abroad.

Life is not much better for the Assyrians in neighbouring countries
either. The Iraqi Chaldean-Assyrian minority was one of the prime
targets of the Ba'athist party for their role in collaborating with
the British during their occupation of Iraq. Today in post-Ba'athist
Iraq Assyrians find themselves the target of Islamic fundamentalists
and insurgents who hold them to blame for the actions of the
'Christian occupiers', the Americans and the British. Faced with
growing Arabisation and Kurdification of northern Iraq, Assyrians
have been making a steady exit from Iraq to neighbouring Arab states
and from there to the West.

In Turkey, Assyrians are recognised as a religious minority and not
as an ethnic minority like the Armenians, this might seem as a simple
difference in terminology but in fact it is quite a crippling status
for the community. Unlike the Armenians, Assyrians still cannot teach
in their own language, so this indigenous community is left manacled by
the state. Being prevented from teaching one's ancestral language to
future generations of that community has been one of the key factors
forcing this community to leave the country in recent decades.

Fortunately, the EU factor in Turkey coupled with the end of the
worst fighting between the PKK and Security Forces is beginning to
provide short term benefits to small minorities like the Assyrians,
as the government in Ankara seeks to harmonise many of her own policies
with those of the EU. Conditions are now improving for the community,
which was previously on the brink of extinction in the region. An
interest in Assyrian culture and its benefits for tourism is currently
been explored and even the Turkish governor now visits the community
to offer his support. Five years ago during the height of violence
between the PKK and the Turkish security forces this would have not
been possible.

With funds from the European Union, Istanbul Bilgi University opened
an Assyrian cultural centre in the town of Midyat on the 29th of
April 2006 for the first time and last year the city of Mardin hosted
the first international symposium of Mardin history. Some Assyrians
from the diaspora have repatriated to their ancestral region in
recent years.

However, many of the children of those returning diaspora can
only speak Syriac and have little knowledge of Turkish, but faced
with an absence of Syriac classes, they are prevented from a proper
education. The absence of schools that teach Syriac is preventing the
existing group from learning their community's language while on the
other hand encouraging the new arrivals to forget theirs.

Without downplaying the positive reforms in Turkey, the state, which
strives to be secular and a "garden of different flowers" needs not
only to be cognizant of the diversity of their country but needs
to put this into educational policy. Policy makers can encourage
the teaching and use of minority or regional languages without being
detrimental to the use of official languages. It should be government
policy to promote, protect, and preserve the Indigenous languages of
the republic, this would be mutually beneficial to both the ethnic
group and the state in whose confines they reside.

While Assyrians are faced with uncertainty in Iraq and Iran, where
insurgents are keen to destroy multiculturalism, Turkey should
set a precedent by not just promoting multi-faith communities but
multi-lingualism as well. Language like religion is a fundamental
part of a community's identity; it is used to transmit a community's
history, poetry, music and literature that will be forever lost without
it. Like other minorities elsewhere without schooling in their own
language, the future generations of Assyrians will be bereft of a
future and unequal in their rights as Turkish citizens.

The Turkish state needs to extend full citizenship to all her citizens.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress