In the Winter edition of ONE, journalist Don Duncan profiles Syriac Christians “Coming Home” to Turkey. Below, he offers some additional reflections on the political situation in the region.
Thoughts of politics kept coming to my mind when I was reporting this story about the current state of Christian life in the Tur Abdin region of southeast Turkey.
Through the numerous interviews I conducted with members of the community for the article, I realized that, although the community in Tur Abdin today is small, at just 3,500, it nonetheless represents a variety of stances with regards to political participation and its uses.
By and large, there seems to be two main schools of thought in the community.
The first school seeks to keep a low profile, attempting to gain more freedoms without much political agitation. These people, an old guard of sorts, tend to look back, recall past atrocities, and reminisce about the time when Christians ruled Tur Abdin.
The second school, which is a kind of new guard in the community, is one that is a little bolder. It believes that that rights are not granted but rather taken, through overt political engagement with the system and through political agitation.
It is in this second school of political thought where one finds the new faces of Christian political representation, like Mardin’s co-mayor Februniye Akyol. These new faces are attaining representation under the broader political current of the Kurdish movement for democratic change, itself a product of the 1999 ceasefire between the illegal militant Kurdish group, the PKK, and the Turkish state.
Regardless of their different approaches to progress, the reality is that both political schools in Tur Abdin’s Christian community currently face the fact that they are numerically insignificant — both in southeast Turkey and in the country as a whole.
Unlike the days prior to the 1915 genocide, when Christians’ numbers meant they could formulate and apply political will directly within the regional and national context, today their small number means they must always work via a more powerful proxy.
The evolution of Kurdish politics (from armed insurrection to pro-minority political engagement) over recent years has produced a window of opportunity through which Christians can push for and attain more rights as a minority.
However, the Christians and their hope lie on unstable ground and they have no control over factors that can change the playing field.
That ground is being shaken even now. The ceasefire between the Turkish state and the PKK crumbled last July and hostilities between the two players have flared. This may well cause the Kurdish political ethos to swing back from democratic participation to the stance of armed conflict it had prior to the 1999 ceasefire.
If this happens, the political window of opportunity that the Tur Abdin Christians have recently found and exploited will snap shut and they will find themselves in political obscurity once again.
But for now, the low-key, pacifist and non-confrontational approach of the old guard in the Tur Abdin Christian community will not be without worth — making slow and silent progress in attaining new rights and privileges for its community.