World Turkey sentences Syriac monk on terrorism charges for giving bread to visitors
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Turkey’s broad-based anti-terrorism law, open to interpretation that permits the abuse of the human rights of its ethnic and religious minorities, demands serious scrutiny by the international community. At the center of the latest example is Father Aho Sefer Bilecen, a Syriac Christian monk and head of the Monastery of Mar Yaqoub. On April 7, a Turkish court sentenced him to two years and one month in prison on terrorism-related charges.
The crime for which he must spend the next two years of his life in prison? One day, in 2018, he gave bread and water to two people who knocked at the door of his monastery and asked for some means of sustenance, not an unusual occurrence in the rural areas of Turkey. The strangers happened to be members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a designated terrorist group.
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Aho, who is known for his generous and charitable nature as well as his dedication to the Christian ideal of serving others, complied with their request. He does not ask for visitors’ political views, ethnicity, or religion when he gives them food.
His arrest and sentencing are a case study in what Amnesty International has reported on the state of human rights in Turkey. “The judiciary disregards fair trial guarantees and due process and continued to apply broadly defined anti-terrorism laws to punish acts protected under international human rights law,” said its latest report.
The story of Aho’s arrest and sentencing have fueled further the fears of Turkey’s Syriac and Armenian minority Christian communities, which have been living with the sword of persecution hanging over their heads for decades.
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They have always been in the crossfire of other fighting parties and during the last decades in the war between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Turkish army.
In arresting Aho, the prosecutor's office referred to the statement of an informant and a police report indicating that "the members of the organization had entered the monastery" in 2018. Aho was charged with "being a member of the organization." After he was arrested, he spoke to the members of the Urfa Bar Association's Human Rights Commission and shared the following message via his attorneys:
"Two members of the organization came to the monastery in 2018. They asked me for food. And I gave it. It was reported afterwards. In response to this, the police Commander met me through the metropolitan bishop. I did not deny it. I wanted security measures to be taken so that this incident would not happen again. But no security measures were taken.
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"I thought that the case was closed after the report was taken down. I would give no matter who came to my door. I needed to do it for religious and philosophical reasons. I cannot lie as I am a priest. I did it not to aid an organization, but due to my faith.”
“I do not leave the monastery anyway," he added, implying that he could not be a member of a terrorist organization if he never left the monastery.
Before the 1915 genocide of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, the area of Turkey known as Tur Abdin, or Mountain of God's Servants, was inhabited by a Syriac Christian majority. It was an area rich with churches and monasteries — indeed, one of the richest in the world. Tur Abdin’s Christians are indigenous and call themselves Assyrians, Chaldeans, or Syriacs. These are different names for a common ethnicity rooted in the Mesopotamian kingdoms that flourished between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers thousands of years before Jesus. They take pride in sharing Jesus's mother tongue Aramaic, of which they are native speakers.
The remaining Christians there are descendants of the few genocide survivors who refused to leave. But oppression and persecution as well as dreams for a better, more secure life caused many to flee to America, Europe, and Australia. Today, a remnant of 3,000 remains in southeastern Turkey (known in ancient times as Mesopotamia), which has been their homeland for thousands of years. Each time they breathe a sigh of relief and hope for a more secure life in their own homeland, there comes another blow to dash their hopes.
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The verdict against Aho could be the last nail in the coffin for many of them. Now, their only hope is that the U.S. government, the United Nations, Amnesty International, and other human rights-defending governments and organizations will intervene and that Aho will be set free. His ideals of service included giving bread to the hungry and water to the thirsty. And for that, he is serving a prison term.
Nuri Kino is an award-winning Swedish journalist and expert on Middle Eastern affairs. Susan Korah is an award-winning Canadian journalist with a focus on international human rights, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression.
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