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Assyrian Priest in Turkey Tried for 'Membership in a Terrorist Organization'
By Uzay Bulut
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Fr. Sefer Aho Bileçen.
A Christian priest in Turkey has been on trial for trumped-up charges since January.

The Assyrian priest, Sefer Aho Bileçen, is accused of “being a member of a terrorist organization.” According to the indictment, the so-called “evidence” is “sharing his food with some PKK members.”

The third hearing of the priest was held on November 3 in the city of Mardin located in southeast Turkey. During the hearing, in which two witnesses were heard, Father Bileçen said he gave food to people without asking who they were, because it was part of his faith to share his food with others.

Bileçen was arrested on January 10 and released four days later. He was then indicted on January 16 for “membership in a terror organization.”

The hearing, in which a limited number of people were allowed to attend due to Covid-19, was closed to the press.

The news website Gazete Karınca reported that one of the witnesses who testified through the Audio and Video Information System said that he did not know Bileçen and had heard from others that he gave them food. The other witness stated that they asked for food from Bileçen and the priest gave them food without knowing who they were.

The next hearing is slated for January 27.

The Mor Yakup Church (also known as Church of Saint Jacob in Nisibis), where the Assyrian priest lives, is a historic Orthodox church located in the town of Nusaybin, also called Nisibis in the Assyrian language. The church is named after Saint Jacob, a prominent Assyrian saint, who was born and raised in Nisibis. In 2014, the church site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list.

The trial of a priest dedicated to a monastic life for “being a member of a terror organization” is the latest scandal in Turkey’s long history of Christian persecution.

Assyrians are an indigenous people of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. They are part of the eastern Christian tradition and speak an ancient language called Assyrian (sometimes referred to as Syriac, Aramaic, or Neo-Aramaic). The Assyrian Church of the East records that the Apostle Thomas converted the Assyrians to Christianity within a generation after the death of Christ. Today Assyrians are a stateless people, but ancient Assyrians ruled the largest empire the world had yet known for 300 years. Professor Hannibal Travis notes:

The Greek historian Herodotus... referred to all of Mesopotamia as Assyria.... Under Parthian rule, many Assyrian cities were 'resurrected' and, with the aid of other, mostly Semitic peoples, the former capital of Assur was rebuilt to the size it had been during the Assyrian empire.

The Assyrians have been a people without a state for more than two millennia, since the fall of the empire and sack of Nineveh in 612 BCE. With the Arab conquests of Mesopotamia and neighboring Persia and Syria, as well as Armenia, Egypt, and the Levant, the Eastern Christian peoples fell to a subordinate status. Arab officials decreed the destruction of many churches, the cessation of Christian religious services, the deportation of Christians from the land, the expropriation of their property, and the executions of those who resisted.

For more than a thousand years before Mesopotamia and Persia fell under Turkish domination, Turks had begun infiltrating Mesopotamia from Central Asia, as nomads and imported slaves. The Seljuk Turks seized power from the Baghdad caliphs in the eleventh century, only to be overthrown by the murderous Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan, Hulagu Khan, and Timur the Lame... The Ottoman Turks re-conquered Mesopotamia in the sixteenth century and ruled it, with substantial periods of Safavid Persian and Mamluk Georgian rule intervening, until World War I.

Under Ottoman rule, Assyrians and other Christians witnessed the biggest assault against them before, during and after World War I. Author Mardean Isaac explains that during this period, “Turkish and Kurdish forces invaded land that the Assyrian people had inhabited since antiquity and began exterminating them. The slaughter that ensued lasted from 1915-1923, leaving 300,000 Assyrians dead and innumerable women abducted.”

But the Assyrian plight did not end even after the establishment of Turkey in 1923. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the final treaty concluding World War I, recognized the boundaries of Turkey. It also granted some rights to religious minorities, excluding Assyrians. Dr. Racho Donef explains:

The Assyrians had their hopes dashed by the Lausanne Treaty, which did not specify any special rights for the Assyrians living in Turkey. This exclusion from the Lausanne Treaty has been crucial, as it became the cornerstone of the Turkish government attitudes towards the Assyrian population. It allowed the Turkish state to formulate a consistent and coherent policy of denying any rights for the Assyrians, continually referring to the Treaty and pointing out that there are no other minorities in Turkey as though this was a physical reality and not a construct of the Lausanne Conference. In essence the misuse of the Lausanne Treaty has been a convenient tool to deny Assyrians any rights in the Turkey Republic.

Despite legal and systematic discrimination against Assyrians, the sizable Assyrian presence in southeast Turkey continued until the conflicts between the Turkish military and the Kurdish PKK escalated in the 1980s and 1990s. This period witnessed grave rights violations against Assyrians, which greatly escalated their exodus from Turkey. According to a report by Minority Rights Group International,

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.”

These pressures, and other more insidious forms of discrimination, have decimated the community.

According to the popular media narrative in the West, until Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in 2002 or until the attempted coup took place in 2016, Turkey was a progressive “Muslim democracy” that was tolerant of non-Muslim communities. This could not be farther from the truth. Non-Muslim citizens of Turkey -- mainly Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Yazidis -- were systematically persecuted even before Erdogan’s rule. Indeed, this persecution dates since the Ottoman era and subsequent founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. In fact, the population of these communities collapsed as a result of Turkish policies long before Erdogan came to power. Erdogan’s rule is just a continuation of the traditionally oppressive, discriminatory practices of the Turkish state. What remains unchanged in Turkey is the severe and widespread pressures experienced by non-Muslim citizens of the country.

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