Turkey Allows Assyrians to celebrate a holiday

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Apr 4 16:37:31 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,

April 4, 2005
Turkey Allows a First New Year for a Tiny Minority


MIDYAT, Turkey, April 1 - A windswept hilltop here in southeastern
Anatolia has become the site for a reunion that once would have been
unthinkable, as thousands of Assyrians from across the region have
converged to openly celebrate their New Year in Turkey for the first time.
Like many other expressions of minority ethnic identity, the Assyrian New
Year, or Akito, had been seen by Turkey as a threat. But this year, the
government, with an eye toward helping its bid to join the European Union,
has officially allowed the celebration by the Assyrians, members of a
Christian ethnic group that traces its roots back to ancient Mesopotamia.

Yusuf Begtas, one of the celebration's organizers, said that because most
of Turkey's tiny Assyrian population - about 6,000 people in all - lives
in a heavily Kurdish region that has seen frequent clashes between the
Turkish government and Kurdish militias, strong assertions of Assyrian
ethnicity have long been politically impossible. But Turkey's political
culture has been changing rapidly. "Turkey is showing itself to the E.U.,"
Mr. Begtas said. "When we asked the authorities for permission to
celebrate this year, we knew it wouldn't be possible for them to deny us
now. Turkey has to show the E.U. that it is making democratic changes."

The festivities here on Friday were the culmination of a celebration that
started on March 21, the first day of the Assyrian New Year. Behind Mr.
Begtas, on a raised stage near the wall of the Mar Aphrem monastery, a
balding baritone sang in Syriac, the Assyrians' language, a Semitic tongue
similar to Aramaic. He was followed by a group of girls wearing mauve
satin folk costumes, dancing in lines with their arms linked. They were
cheered on by an audience of about 5,000, including large groups of
visiting ethnic Assyrians from Europe, Syria and Iraq.

Iraq, where Akito is celebrated openly, has the world's largest population
of Assyrians, about a million. Most of Turkey's Assyrians were killed or
driven away during the Armenian massacres early in the last century, and
the bullet scars on some of Midyat's almost medieval-looking sandstone
buildings still bear witness to those times. In recent years, Assyrians
have suffered quieter forms of persecution and discrimination. Since the
1980's, under those pressures, thousands of Assyrians have emigrated
abroad. Kurds, with whom Assyrians have long had a tense relationship, are
now a majority in Midyat, which until just a generation ago was 75 percent

Haluk Akinci, the regional governor of Nusaybin, a district next to
Midyat, suggested that the Turkish government might see allowing the New
Year celebration as a partial atonement for past persecutions. "In the
past, freedoms for minorities were not as great as they are now,"  he
said, though he noted that in years past, private Assyrian New Year
celebrations had generally been ignored by the authorities. "The Turkish
government now repents that they let so many of these people leave the

After years of intense political and population pressure, the Turkish
Assyrians say, public celebrations like Akito have huge emotional
significance, and the participation of Assyrians from abroad has become
particularly meaningful. Terros Lazar Owrah, 60, an Assyrian shopkeeper
from Dohor, in northern Iraq, said he had driven 14 hours for the
opportunity to attend the celebration. "So many of us are leaving the
region," he said. "It's very important for Assyrians from everywhere to
get together in one place."

Thanks in large part to greater political freedoms granted recently in
Iraq and Turkey, the Assyrians say, a sense of pan-regional Assyrian
identity seems to be gathering strength. And though Turkey does not have
any legal Assyrian political parties, there are those who would like to
turn this rapidly developing sense of solidarity into a political voice,
even into a discussion of nationhood. Representatives from several
overseas Assyrian political parties were present at the celebration.

Emanuel Khoshaba, an Iraqi Assyrian who represents the Assyrian Democratic
Movement in Damascus, pointed out that Midyat lies between the Tigris and
the Euphrates, the Mesopotamia that the Assyrians believe to be their
rightful homeland. "Protecting our national days is as important to us as
preserving the soil of our nation," Mr. Khoshaba said. "Whether they live
in Iraq or Syria or Turkey, our goal is to bring Assyrians together as a

That is unlikely to happen. With countries in the region increasingly wary
of the flowering of Kurdish nationalism in northern Iraq, smaller
nationalist movements seem to have even less of a chance of finding
political support in the region. Still, the relaxation of Turkish
antagonism toward the New Year's celebration was a significant enough
start for many who attended. "It's about coming together in spite of our
rulers," said Fahmi Soumi, an Assyrian businessman who had traveled from
Damascus to attend the Akito festivities. "When we unite like this, there
is no Turkey, no Syria and no Iran. We are one people."


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