Turkey Removes Assyrian Sculpture, Continues Crackdown on Christians

Turkish authorities have removed an Assyrian sculpture from a public square in front of the local council building in Diyarbakir. No explanation has yet been provided by the Turkish Government.

The removed sculpture (Photo: AINA)

The sculpture, an Assyrian winged bull known as a lamassu, was removed on Jan. 8, after Turkey placed an unelected district governor in charge of the Diyarbakir municipality under the emergency decree issued after the abortive coup of last year.

The Turkish government has been escalating its pressure on Christians and their cultural heritage. The Christian co-mayor of Mardin, Februniye Akyol, 28, was removed from her post by the Turkish government on Nov. 16, 2016, and replaced by the governor of the city, Mustafa Yaman.

Born and christened Fabronia Benno, the former mayor hails from Tur Abdin, the heartland of Syriac Christians in southeastern Turkey. However, Benno had to run for office under her official Turkish name, Februniye Akyol, because of the institutionalized prohibitions by the Turkish government on non-Turkish languages. In 2014, she became the first Christian woman to lead one of Turkey’s metropolitan municipalities.

The Assyrian people, as well as Chaldeans and Syriac Christians, have inhabited the Middle East since the beginning of recorded history. The scholar Hannibal Travis wrote in his comprehensive article ‘‘Native Christians Massacred − The Ottoman Genocide of the Assyrians during World War I,” that: “The Assyrian homeland is in northern Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, where the ancient cities of Assur and Nineveh were built. For 300 years, Assyrian kings ruled the largest empire the world had yet known. The Assyrian Church of the East records that the Apostle Thomas himself converted the Assyrians to Christianity within a generation after the death of Christ. Christianity was ‘well established and organized’ in Mesopotamia by the third century CE.”

Februniye Akyol (Photo: Twitter)

Once the rulers of the greatest empire in history, Assyrians have been turned into a persecuted minority in their native lands as a result of continued massacres and pressure at the hands of Muslims and the absence of support or protection from the West. According to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), every fifty years there has been a massacre of Assyrians.

“The Assyrians and other Ottoman Christians, like the Jews, had suffered from centuries of discrimination and official segregation; were charged with being agents of foreign powers and scapegoated for military defeats and looming threats in a rhetoric of ethnic elimination; and were physically and culturally exterminated in large numbers by means of massacres, rapes, expulsions, and attacks on homes and religious institutions carried out by genocidal state apparatuses and local irregular forces,” Travis explains.

The Assyrian Genocide, commonly known as Seyfo (sword), took place between 1914 and 1923 in the Ottoman Empire.

The Assyrian claim for autonomy was never realized, which made the Assyrian community completely vulnerable at the hands of the oppressive governments in the region.  For example, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of republican Turkey, did not recognize Assyrians as a distinct community with their own religious and national identity and failed to offer special protections for them.

Today, only around 25,000 Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs remain in Turkey. And the official denial of their language, nationality and culture continues. Only some of the Kurdish-governed municipalities in Turkey have taken actual steps to revitalize the Christian heritage in the region. The recently removed Assyrian sculpture had also been erected by the pro-Kurdish Diyarbakir municipality.

Turkey has been undergoing a series of grave crises. The Turkish Lira is in sharp devaluation; the economy is staggering. The crackdown on dissident politicians, journalists, academics, and businesspersons under the guise of fighting “terrorists” is becoming more widespread day by day. There are currently 151 journalists and media employees in Turkish jails according to the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24).

Moreover, only seven Islamic State (ISIS) members have been convicted of crimes and jailed in Turkey in the last year-and-a-half. The data was made public when Bekir Bozdag, the Turkish justice minister, responded to a motion at the Turkish parliament in which he was asked the number of ISIS convicts in Turkish jails.

Unable or unwilling to solve the very serious problems of the country, including the worsening economy and ISIS terrorism, the Turkish government has finally found bogus threats it can successfully confront: The Assyrian Lamassu sculpture in Diyarbakir and the only Syriac Christian mayor in the country, Februniye Akyol.

Uzay Bulut

Uzay Bulut

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. She is a fellow at the Middle East Forum (MEF) and is currently based in Washington D.C. Bulut’s journalistic work focuses mainly on Turkish politics, ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey, and antisemitism.

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