The Turkish government denied in late December that Syrian Christians had been served official notice to stop religious education in the Syriac language in their ancient monasteries in Southeast Turkey.
In a written memo to the Turkish Parliament dated December 31, Interior Minister Murat Basesgioglu stated that a recent claim about the "prohibition of religious education of our Syrian citizens was a completely wrong and speculative report." Copies of a government document signed by Mardin Governor Fikret Guven and a previous one from an Ankara official in the Interior Ministry were obtained by the press several weeks ago.
The October 6 and August 11 memorandums declared the ancient Syrian Orthodox monasteries in the Southeast guilty of holding illegal classes in Syriac. The letters also proscribed the housing of schoolboys and visitors on church-owned property as a violation of Turkish law. Guven’s letter specifically requested the church’s foundations to "discontinue said activities," warning that if they did not, "necessary legal actions will be taken." However, Basesgioglu claimed, "There was no decision and ...there was no interference aimed at limiting or abolishing the worship of the church congregation." To the contrary, he stated, local Christian leaders declared that they were "pleased by the good intentions and tolerance" they enjoyed in the region. The Interior Minister noted that under the guidelines of the Directorate General of Foundations, "security measures and protective actions" would be enforced "in the event that natives and foreigners...who come to stay as long-term guests" requested them. He stressed that like all other Turkish citizens, Syrian Christians would continue to be expected to obey the same laws and preventive measures of the country.
Turkey’s Syrian Christians are remnants of one of the most ancient Christian communities in the Middle East, with their monasteries in the Southeast dating from the fourth century. They pride themselves in keeping alive a dialect of Aramaic considered closest to that spoken by Christ.
Basesgioglu’s memorandum came in response to the December
10 inquiry of Ercan Karakas, an Istanbul parliamentarian from the Republican
People’s Party. Karakas had asked for an official response from the Interior
Ministry as to whether the published press reports about the Mardin governor’s order were correct, and if so, the reason and legal basis for such an order. The government action initially received almost no local press coverage, except for minimal paragraphs appearing in the Cumhuriyet, Radikal and Gundem publications. But a two-page article entitled "Ban on Religious Class!" in the Sunday magazine of Radikal newspaper got more attention. Published on December 7, the column by journalist Semra Somersan queried:"On the basis of what right and law? On the basis of what numbered law, which international agreement, can the centuries-old Syrian Chaldean faith be prohibited, like the South African apartheid regime’s Afrikaner leaders?" Excerpts from Somersan’s article were reprinted the following week in Agos, a weekly paper published in Turkish by the Armenian community.
Only after the Interior Minister’s response did the country’s one English-language paper mention the issue. On January 9, the Turkish Daily News quoted Basesgioglu as attributing the allegedly false reports about actions against Syrian Christians to "external provocateurs". "It is not necessary," he had concluded in his memo, "for any action to be taken concerning the governor of Mardin."
Syrian Orthodox Christian leaders in Turkey continued to decline comment on the dispute, which stirred considerable comment over the past three months among the community’s diaspora across Europe. On November 14, a group of some 100 Syrian Christian protesters occupied the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva briefly, demanding action to stop a "Turkish clampdown" on Syrian Christian rights by the impending closure of the monasteries. The group, which included some women and children, left peacefully after U.N. officials agreed to meet their representatives to discuss their grievances.
Thousands of Syrian Christians have immigrated abroad from their ancient homelands in Southeast Turkey during the past decade of civil war between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish army in the region.