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Christians a welcome scapegoat in Turkey

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach
June 23, 2020

One of the oldest Christian churches in the world is under extreme pressure from the Turkish state. That doesn't bode well for the future, says Alexander Görlach.

Christian villages like Tel Nasri have been abandoned by their original population
Image: Euskal Fondoa/Andoni Lubaki

The persecution of Christians in Turkey continues. While the world is busy fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with mass unemployment and a global recession, the Turkish government is taking advantage of the situation to further pressure minorities. The marginalization of Turkey's Christians isn't new for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: He's been busy reorganizing his secular republic into a mixture of Ottomanism and Islam for some time now.

Recently, the Syriac-Aramaic Christians in the country's southeast, in particular, had to fear for their rights and property. This religious community is one of the world's oldest churches. Aramaic, the language the community uses in worship, is thought to have been spoken by Jesus Christ himself.

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach lives in New YorkImage: Harvard University/D. Elmes

Systematic discrimination

Turkish authorities have started to simply assign land owned by a community or a private person to other owners, in effect expropriating it from the Christians. During the armed confrontation with the Kurds, churches in this part of the country have also been destroyed.

In the wake of the recent Turkish military offensive in northern Syria, some 200,000 people, many of them Christians, have been forced to flee their homes. They are currently unable to return due to the conflict.

Read more: War in Syria drives out Christian community

Erdogan has promised to let the churches be rebuilt. But the long-running and systematic discrimination against Turkey's Christian minority suggests he isn't really serious about reviving Christian religious life.

On trial for following his faith

Take the case of Sefer Bilecen. In January, the Syriac Orthodox priest from Mardin in southeastern Turkey was accused of being a member of a terrorist group. He is said to have given water and bread to Kurdish fighters who knocked at the gate of his monastery.

In his defense, the priest has argued that he would provide help to anyone who asked for it — it's his Christian duty. He has since been released from prison after various aid organizations intervened, but is still on trial.

Read more: LGBT+ in Turkey's prisons: A double punishment

If Christians continue to be moved ever closer to Kurdish militias fighting the Turkish state, they are likely to be marginalized even further in the eyes of Erdogan's supporters — about one out of every two Turks.

Christians facing persecution in Turkey

Erdogan's scapegoat

Step by step, using a nationalist and Islamic rhetoric, Turkey's Christians are becoming a welcome scapegoat for Ankara. Erdogan has miscalculated on various fronts in Syria and Libya, and is now looking for someone to serve as a distraction. The fate of Sefer Bilecen, who is still waiting for his verdict, mirrors that of a minority whose future in their homeland is anything but certain.

Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior research associate at the Religion & International Studies Institute at Cambridge University. He has also held several scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University, National Taiwan University and the City University of Hong Kong. He holds doctorate degrees in comparative religion and linguistics.

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