BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
It has been the long-standing practice of the Turkish government to pressure the leaders of minority religious groups in Turkey to issue public statements in defense of Turkish policies and war efforts or to condemn Armenian Genocide resolutions adopted by various foreign countries.
The leaders of the Armenian, Assyrian, Greek and Jewish communities are used to this practice and have willingly complied with the Turkish demands knowing that not doing so can only spell trouble for them personally and for their respective communities.
In the past, such orders were given to the minority leaders in a more delicate manner. For example, a Turkish official would either call or visit the Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul and discreetly suggest that it may be a good idea for him to issue a public announcement on some political issue. Naturally, the previous Patriarchs have never refused such suggestions which are more like orders from the Turkish government. The only difference between the reactions of different Patriarchs has been to somewhat soften or harden the language of their announcements.
What we are experiencing now is completely different. The autocratic government of Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become so tyrannical that last week it sent a letter to the four minority religious leaders in Turkey asking that they sign it and send it back to the President’s Communication Office. All four immediately complied.
The minor surprise was that a week before Pres. Erdogan sent a letter to the minority religious leaders, the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey issued an announcement basically supporting the sentiments expressed in Erdogan’s subsequent letter. The Patriarch should not be blamed neither for writing his own propaganda letter in advance nor signing the government’s dictated letter. After all, the Patriarch knows what is expected of him and made his announcement without waiting for official orders.
The issue in this case is the Turkish military’s recent invasion of Northern Syria which resulted in the deaths of scores of Turkish soldiers. The Armenian Patriarchate issued the following statement:
“The attack in Idlib [Syria], resulting in the martyrdom of 33 heroic Turkish soldiers, caused a great shock in our country. Wholeheartedly sharing the pain of our nation, we seek God’s mercy for the martyrs. Our heroic army is the guarantor of our state’s existence. To all the members of the army who have lost their comrades-in-arms we urge endurance. We also continue to pray that peace may reign in the world and particularly in our region. In the name of the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey, the Religious Council, and all members of the community, we would like to share with the public our belief that it will be possible to overcome this difficult process in an atmosphere of unity and solidarity.”
The Patriarchate subsequently signed the more propagandistic letter drafted by the office of Pres. Erdogan. Here are excerpts from that two-page letter:
“Our country has always been a pioneer of the steps that serve peace in its region and in the world, inspired by its ancient history and deep-rooted civilization. Since our War of Independence, very important struggles have been carried out for our independence, security and welfare.
“In each of these struggles, the spirit of mobilization revealed by our cherished nation constitutes a unique example for the whole world. As non-governmental organizations, we fully support the steps of our state, which are based on the country’s security and interests, and that also protect the establishment and maintenance of peace in our region….
“We argue that this struggle to dry terrorism at its source should be continued with the same determination. We know that to question Turkey’s presence in Syria means to ignore our border security.
“Various countries’ approach in favor of terrorist groups and in support of regional instability has shown that we often fight this alone.
“However, our nation, which has a foresight, has always been and will continue to be with its state. As non-governmental organizations, we take pride in being part of this cherished nation. In line with the developments in our region, we state that we are behind every decision taken by our state against these cruel murderers and monsters for the peace and security of our country and we support every step taken. No one should doubt that we will overcome all difficulties in unity and solidarity, as it has been until today.
“Turkey is a country of peace. Turkey is the key to peace in the region and the world.
“Despite all the obstacles and attacks on our way, we would like to announce to the world that we are ready to support our state and army, and struggle with them when necessary, in order to protect our national security, prevent new humanitarian crises and establish peace in our region.
“We are once again shouting to the world that we will protect this homeland, under all circumstances, and struggle with the integration of the state-nation, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder.”
However, not all Turkish citizens support their government’s invasion of Syria. Cumhuriyet newspaper wrote a scathing article accusing Pres. Erdogan of pressuring the minorities.
Toma Chelik, a member of the Turkish Parliament representing HDP, Kurdish-affiliated party, sent a letter to the Vice President of Turkey, asking the following questions:
- Who prepared the text of the President’s letter to the minorities?
- Who decided to send the letter to the minorities?
- To what other groups was this letter sent?
- Will those refusing to sign the letter be punished?
At a time when thousands of innocent citizens of Turkey and dozens of journalists have been thrown in jail by the Erdogan regime, anyone who does not obey the diktats of Erdogan risks incarceration. While Pres. Erdogan is unable to come to an agreement with Western Europe, the United States and Russia on the conflict with Syria, it is much easier for him to take his frustration and revenge on innocent people within Turkey.