In May, the doors of homes of some Armenian Christians in Istanbul’s Samatya district were marked with Star of David graffiti and threatening messages, among them the words: “Attention, Israel.” This was a few days after a woman from Armenia in the same district was the victim of a knife attack carried out by two masked assailants shouting, “This is [only] the beginning.” Pictured: The upper facade of the Armenian Church of Saint George of Samatya (right), in the Samatya district of Istanbul, Turkey. (Image source: Stilbes/Wikimedia Commons)
Ankara’s hair-raising human-rights record, including an ongoing attempt to erase all vestiges of other religions and cultures in Turkey, is one reason that it has been prevented from realizing its long-standing dream of membership in the European Union. It does enjoy status, however, as a member of NATO, and remains a signatory to the 2007 “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” which reads in part:
“Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the State. [Article 5]…
“Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain, control, protect and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions…[Article 31]”
The most widely cited working definition of indigenous peoples is that of Jose R. Martinez Cobo, the Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. In his “Study on the Problem of Discrimination against Indigenous Populations,” Cobo notes:
“Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.”
Turkey, however, home to indigenous Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians (Syriacs), has never fulfilled its obligations under that UN declaration. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in fact, continues blatantly to violate it, as recent examples illustrate:
On June 25, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favor of Nuri Aktaş, an Assyrian citizen of Turkey, who had been denied, by the Turkish civil registrar, permission to change his surname.
On June 21, the Turkish media reported that the Saint Jean Theologos Greek Girls School in Izmir, which has been empty since the extermination of the city’s Greek Christians in 1922, was plundered, its doors and windows removed and its valuables looted. The historic building, now owned by Turkish Undersecretariat of the Treasury, has mostly been used by homeless drug addicts.
On May 14, an 86-year-old ethnic Greek resident of the island of Imbros (Gökçeada) was found murdered in his home, with signs that he had been tortured.
Also in May, the doors of some Armenian homes in Istanbul’s Samatya district were marked with Star of David graffiti and threatening messages, among them the words: “Attention, Israel.” This vandalism was perpetrated less than a week after a woman from Armenia in the same district had been the victim of a knife attack carried out by two masked assailants shouting, “This is [only] the beginning.” According to a priest from the Armenian Patriarchate, two months before the assault, the woman’s home had been marked with hate speech and a cross. The media later reported that, due to their “fearful situation,” her family decided to return to Armenia.
According to the 2019 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom:
“In 2018, the state of religious freedom in Turkey remained deeply troubling, raising serious concerns that the country’s current trajectory will lead to the further deterioration of conditions in the year ahead. The lack of any meaningful progress on the part of the Turkish government to address longstanding religious freedom issues was continued cause for concern. Many serious limitations on the freedom of religion or belief continued, threatening the continued vitality and survival of minority religious communities in the country; in addition, increased demonization and a smear campaign by government entities and progovernment media contributed to a growing climate of fear among religious minority communities. The Turkish government continued to interfere in the internal affairs of religious communities, disallowing patriarchal elections for the Armenian Apostolic Church and maintaining its requirement that Greek Orthodox metropolitans obtain Turkish citizenship in order to participate in the church’s Holy Synod…
“Government officials also continued to engage in anti-Semitism in the form of public statements and comments made on social media platforms, while progovernment newspapers and media outlets propagated hate speech directed against both Christians and Jews. While the state proposed a budget increase of 36 percent for the government body charged with overseeing the exercise of Sunni Islam, other religious groups, including Alevis—whom the government views as a culture rather than a religion—do not receive equal funding… Other longstanding religious freedom concerns remain, such as the return of expropriated religious properties and state-mandated religious education for primary and secondary students. Finally, the unjust detainment and trial of Protestant pastor Andrew Brunson, an ordeal that lasted for more than two years and gave way to a rise in hate speech against Christians, concluded in October 2018 with his conviction and immediate release, after significant pressure from the U.S. government. A USCIRF delegation attended Pastor Brunson’s hearings in Aliağa, Turkey, in May, July, and October 2018. Based on these conditions, in 2019 USCIRF again places Turkey on Tier 2 for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations…”
The root of these violations appears to be Turkey’s denial of its extermination of the indigenous Christian peoples from 1913 to 1923. Denial, according to Genocide Watch president Gregory H. Stanton, “is the final stage that lasts throughout and always follows genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres.”
To this day, Turkey refuses to acknowledge its past and present crimes against the indigenous peoples whose rights it has vowed to protect. This is among many things that differentiates Turkey from civilized nations that have taken serious steps to improve the rights of their native peoples.
Australia, for example, conducted an independent inquiry in 1997 on the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities. In addition, it has become protocol in Australia to acknowledge the Aborigines — the country’s first people — at the start of official events.
If Turkey were to conduct a similar inquiry into the separation of Christian children from their families during the 1913-1923 Christian genocide — and recognize its own indigenous peoples as the traditional owners of the land — it would be illustrating a desire to reckon with and rectify its abhorrent treatment of minorities. Failure on the part of the Turkish government to undertake such an endeavor is simply additional evidence that it has no desire to improve its standing among nations that honor commitments and historical fact.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.