Turkey’s Main Field of Expertise: Persecuting Minorities


By Robert Jones


In Turkey, a NATO member and a candidate for the European Union, citizens are systematically persecuted or even murdered for having been born non-Turkish or non-Muslim.

For decades, the Turkish government and much of the Turkish public have victimized millions of people -—

Yahya Yasef
Yasef Yahya

Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds and Alevis. Here are six victims whose life stories I hope will give you an idea about what it means to live as a minority member in Turkey.

Like Armenians, hundreds of thousands of Assyrians were also victims of the Ottoman Turks’ genocide of Christians in 1915. They were subjected to “a deliberate and systematic campaign of massacre, torture, abduction, deportation, impoverishment and cultural and ethnic destruction,” Professor Hannibal Travis wrote.

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Like other non-Muslim communities in Turkey, the plight of Assyrians continued after 1915 as well. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish state launched an all-out war against the Kurds to suppress their request of freedom. Turkish state forces also murdered at least 50 Assyrian civilians during this war.

One of the victims was Edvard Tanriverdi (1938 -1994), a well-known Assyrian doctor who was killed at age 56 in front of his house in the district of Midyat on Dec. 18, 1994. “Just like in all incidents, security forces did not go to the murder scene for a long time and no investigation has been launched about the murder ever since,” wrote Velat Demir, president of the Association of Solidarity and Assistance for the Families of Missing Persons. “As of 2013, the murderers of Tanriverdi are still free.”

Gebro Tokgöz, an Assyrian activist, described the period of 1990s in the region as a “nightmare. Assyrians had to leave their villages during this period,” he added. “We had so many losses. We received threats on the phone and in letters. Our villages were shot with bullets; our vehicles burnt. Our citizens were shot while they were on their way home. Edvard Tanriverdi, the best doctor of the region, was murdered by unknown assailants while on his way home in 1994. Yusuf Akyil and his nine-month-pregnant wife, who lived in the village of Baglarbasi, were murdered in a house raid. Yakup Mete, the muhtar of the village of Akcakaya, was also murdered.”

In 2014, Erol Dora, an Assyrian MP of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), submitted a motion to Turkey’s parliament requesting an investigation into the murders by unknown assailants against Assyrians since 1980s. The motion read, “As a result of these massacres, which are called ‘murders by unknown assailants,’ more than 50 Assyrians lost their lives. Dr. Edvard Tanriverdi, Sükrü Tutus — former mayor of Idil — Mikail Bayro, Yakup Yonothan, Gevriye Bulut and Ismuni Adil were only a few of them.”

The motion added that Assyrians have had to abandon their lands due to the massacres. “Assyrians have been faced with an attitude that could be considered an extension of the state mentality that prevailed in 1915. The population of Assyrians has decreased to 3,000 in the cities of Mardin, Sirnak, Hakkâri, the Turabdin region and surrendering cities where they have lived for millennia. The fact that the murderers have not been brought to court even though it has been years has increased the victimhood of Assyrian people.”

Yasef Yahya, 39, a Jewish dentist from Turkey, was brutally murdered on August 21, 2003 in the Sisli district of Istanbul. Yahya was married with two children — a 6-year-old boy and a 6-month-old girl.

Ishak Ibrahimzadeh, the leader of the Jewish community in Turkey, commemorated the death of Yahya with a messageposted on Twitter: “13 years ago today, they have murdered the dentist, our Yasef, because they realized he was Jewish from his name.”

The perpetrators were members of an Islamist terrorist organization. Adem Cetinkaya, one of the murderers, told the police that he and his colleagues had needed money for the new organization that they wished to form.

Scholar Rifat Bali said that Cetinkaya made the following confession: “For a long time, we had thought about [carrying out some] action against the Jews. The nameplate of a dentist in Sisli attracted our attention. We spoke [among ourselves] saying, ‘We’ve got to kill this Jew.'”

According to police reports, Yahya was found in a bathroom with his hands and feet tied with clothesline. Women’s stockings were put in his mouth and his head was leaned toward the bathtub; he was then shot with one bullet to the head.

His wife found his lifeless body.

The murderers also took Yahya’s telephone notebook and called the people inside who had Jewish-sounding names, harassing and threatening them, and demanding money from them. In fear, many Jewish lawyers and doctors in Istanbul removed the signs on their offices in order not to have the same fate as Yahya.

Yahya was only one of the victims of Turkish-Islamic anti-Semitism. During the 93-year history of the Turkish Republic, Jews in Turkey have been subjected to various pressures, discrimination and even pogroms. According to the 2015 Anti-Defamation League Global 100 Poll, 71 percent of the Turkish adult population harbors anti-Semitic attitudes.

Bali explained: The official line that successive Turkish regimes have frequently repeated and which has firmly established itself in both Turkish and foreign public opinion is that the Republic of Turkey is one of those rare countries in which anti-Semitism has never taken root, and in which Jews have thus lived for centuries within a tolerant atmosphere of peace and tranquility — but it simply isn’t true.

Within this fictional past, all events that might be seen as contradictory to this view of Turkish tolerance and mercy toward its Jewish population — events such as the pressure on them to forego the special rights accorded them by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, the “Compatriot, Speak Turkish!” campaigns, the pogroms and looting of the Jewish communities of Turkish Thrace, the conscription of 20 non-Muslims labor battalions during World War II, the turning away of the ill-fated Struma, an aging freighter carrying Romanian Jewish refugees, and the Capital Tax — such events are always either glossed over or treated as isolated incidents.

Along with anti-Semitism are the conspiracy theories in which the “Jew” or the “Zionist” feature as the main actors that are widely seen throughout Turkish society. In fact, this state of affairs is not only pervasive but has even become “normal” to the point of banality, so much so that it tends to draw no reaction from either the country’s intellectuals or politicians.

Subsequent reports indicated that 15 people had been killed.

Lefter Küçükandonyadis (1924-2012) was born the son of a fisherman on the island of Büyükada in Istanbul. He grew up with 10 brothers and sisters. He transferred to the Turkish football team Fenerbahçe in 1947 in order to be able to buy medicine for his sick father, and achieved instant success.

He was capped 50 times for the Turkish national football team, and was the captain nine times. He was the top scorer for Turkey for decades, but he had a giant fault, even a crime: He was of Greek origin.

When he was 17, the Turkish government enacted the Wealth Tax Law that targeted non-Muslims. Those who were unable to pay the tax were sent to labor camps; the government seized their properties or they were deported.

Journalist Can Dündar reported that author Nebil Ozgenturk, who made a documentary film about Küçükandonyadis, asked him about what his family went through during the Wealth Tax Law.

Küçükandonyadis, a legendary footballer at age 87, did not want to or could not make comments on the record — even 70 years after the Wealth Tax Law — and asked the director to turn off the cameras. Leaning to Ozgenturk’s ear, Küçükandonyadis said, “They made my father suffer so much, too. He was saved from being sent on exile because of his poverty, but all of my family had to leave Turkey.”

Another huge blow to the Greek community was the pogrom on Sept. 6 — 7, 1955. During the pogrom, Greek homes, shops, churches, monasteries, cemeteries, schools and newspapers were sacked, plundered, vandalized and, in some cases, destroyed. The Greeks were the main targets of the pogrom. But the Armenians and Jews of Istanbul were also attacked.

“Besides the deaths,” wrote Professor Alfred de Zayas, “thousands were injured; some 200 Greek women were raped, and there are reports that Greek boys were raped as well. Many Greek men, including at least one priest, were subjected to forced circumcisions. The riots were accompanied by enormous material damage, estimated by Greek authorities at U.S. $500 million, including the burning of churches and the devastation of shops and private homes. As a result of the pogrom, the Greek minority eventually emigrated from Turkey.”

Küçükandonyadis was living in Istanbul when the pogrom took place. During the pogrom, a group of Turks raided his house in Büyükada, screaming, “Hit that kafir [infidel]!” Küçükandonyadis waited at his door with a gun in his hand until morning. Even though he knew all of the assailants, he did not report any of them to the police.

Ozgenturk also asked Küçükandonyadis about the 1955 pogrom. Küçükandonyadis first asked the director to turn off the cameras again and said, “I cried for days. Don’t ask me such questions. You will put me in trouble. Yes, they deported us, and made my father suffer. I still cry over the things my father told me. My father was such a poor man. Wasn’t what they did on Sept. 16 — 17 a shame? It should not have happened, right? What else shall we speak about it?”

The journalist Oral Çalislar wrote that Küçükandonyadis also said, “When I scored goals 15 days ago, I was on their shoulders. But on that day, I was exposed to rocks and dye tins. The worst was that the children that I had given pocket money attacked my house. My daughters were very young. They attempted to kill them. I have been asked so many times about who did that. I did not tell that day; I won’t tell today either.”

Ozgenturk told the daily Radikal that Küçükandonyadis’ words did not “even contain serious criticism,” which made his uneasiness even “more dire.

“He said he was scared. He was a living legend, but he made me turn off the camera. It was even direr that he said, ‘You will put me in trouble.’ I could not even ask about the memories of the 30-year-old Lefter to the 78-year-old Lefter.”

According to Ozgenturk, the reason for this fear is that “the courage of minorities in Turkey has been taken away from them. Even the association of nurses would revolt, but these people can’t.”

Ozgenturk, a prominent author and journalist, understands that psychology because he himself is also a minority member, an Arab Alawite (Nusayri) citizen of Turkey, who was not able to express his Alawite roots at school: “I could not express my sect openly,” saidOzgenturk, in an interview earlier this year. “My father did not want me to be oppressed. Families in the region of Adana, Antakya and Hatay where Arab Alawites were densely populated were always exposed to this. I still bewail that at middle school I could not proudly say, ‘I am an Alawite.’ This is a wound inside of me.”

Sami Hazinses (1925 — 2002) was a well-known Turkish actor, composer and songwriter from Turkey. His real name was Samuel Agop Uluçyan, but he never used it. He was also an Armenian — a reality he tried to hide his entire life. The online newspaper Duvar recently covered his heart-rending story.

Uluçyan was born in the Herêdan village of the Piran (Dicle) district of Diyarbakir, which is called Dikranagerd or Dikrisagerd by the Armenian community. In one of his rare interviews in 1994 — conducted by Yelda Özcan, a prominent human rights activist and journalist — he was asked about his real ethnic identity.

The conversation started bitterly, as Uluçyan did not want to speak about his Armenian origins.

“You don’t want to speak about being an Armenian?” Özcan asked.

“Never!” Uluçyan said.

“So you don’t want your Armenian identity to be known?”

“Who told you I am an Armenian?”

When the interviewer, who also comes from Dikranagerd (Diyarbakir), insisted, Uluçyan accepted his Armenian origins, saying: “The love they [the Turks] have for me would go away. That’s why I don’t want [my ethnic roots to be known]. Don’t write these things now. First let me die. After I die, you can write them. For now, forget about it.”

Özcan published the interview in 2003, a year after Uluçyan died.

In the same year of this interview, 1994, the Armenian International Magazine quoted an Armenian of Istanbul as saying “We are guests here. If they say we have to leave, there is nothing we can do about it.”

It was undoubtedly this atmosphere of fear that kept Uluçyan from fully embracing his identity. In Turkey, even the word “Armenian” is used as a swear word by many people — including government and military authorities. Being Armenian is no easy task.

Even 101 years after the 1915 Armenian genocide, Turkey’s hatred for Armenians does not seem to be subsiding. Attacks against Armenians in Turkey include mostly harassment, threat of violence, racist insults and, of course, brutal murders.

For instance, on Dec. 28, 2012, 85-year-old Armenian woman Maritsa Kucuk was beaten and stabbed to death in her home in Istanbul, where she lived alone. Her son Zadig Kucuk, who found her dead body at home, said that a cross had been carved on her chest.

Given Turkey’s 1915 Armenian genocide and the continued denial of it and all other deadly attacks against Armenians, as well as the extreme hatred toward them — both in the Turkish media and much of the Turkish society — Uluçyan had good reasons to hide his Armenian origins

Nadya Uygun, an Armenian from Turkey who now lives in Florida, said, “Sami Hazinses [Samuel Agop Uluçyan] was my father’s friend. They did their compulsory military service in the same brigade in 1946 in the city of Balikesir. He was scared of expressing his Armenian identity. To Samuel, living as an Armenian in Turkey was worse than death. Turkey should be ashamed of that. This racist mentality has not changed in Turkey and it never will. The entire system has been established on exterminating or denying Armenians, for the Turkish republic was founded on the blood and property of Armenians.”

Uluçyan died in 2002. His burial ceremony was held in the Kadikoy Surp Takavor Church. He is resting in the Hasanpasa Armenian Cemetery in Istanbul.

Professor Livingston Merchant, who formerly worked in Turkey,related a few of his memories about Kurds in the country:

When I became headmaster of Robert College in Istanbul in 2001, I visited the staff room of the Turkish language and history teachers. It was a friendly visit until I used the word “Kurdistan,” quite innocently believing that this was where the Kurds lived, as Baluchistan is where the Baluchis lived. The roof fell on my head. Angry remarks from my new staff not only soured the visit, but it was a long time before relations with some of the more patriotic teachers were mended.

Then, in 2005, I moved to teach at Bilkent University for five years, where I first encountered, “Please, sir. I am a Kurd, but please do not tell anyone.” My Alevi students were equally shy.

How could they not be shy or fearful? Given the hysteric Kurd-hatred in Turkey, these students do have a reason to hide their ethnic identity. So many Kurds have been killed or imprisoned simply for speaking their mother tongue, Kurdish.

For example, Emrah Gezer, a 29-year-old Kurdish man, was murdered in Ankara by 15 gunshots on December 27, 2009 after he sang a Kurdish song at a club to celebrate his friend’s birthday. Three people first harassed Gezer and his friends for singing the song. One of them, Sinem Uludag, accused Gezer and his friends of “being PKK members” and called them “dirty Kurds.” She also shouted at the men around her, saying, “What kind of men are you? Shoot them now!” Uludag was tried for “instigating murder,” but the court acquitted her.

The police officer who murdered Gezer was first given a life sentence, but in 2011, his punishment was reduced to imprisonment of 19 years and five months, due to “unjust provocation.”

“This ruling implies that if you sing a Kurdish song, people around you will be disturbed and provoked, and if they shoot you, they will benefit from reduction of punishment,” Selçuk Kozagaçli, the lawyer for Emrah Gezer’s family, told the weekly newspaper Sol.

When the Turkish state was founded in 1923, Turkish authorities claimed that there was no Kurdish language and no Kurdish people. Kurds were euphemistically said to be “mountain Turks,” and were given no national rights. Since then, millions of Kurds have been exposed to several mass slaughters, forced displacements, forced disappearances, language prohibitions, torture, unlawful arrests, extrajudicial murders and many other human rights abuses.

And, since last August, many predominantly Kurdish districts in Turkey have been attacked and destroyed by the Turkish military and police forces.

The Human Rights Association (IHD) reported:

A war is ongoing in Turkey, where all known national and international human rights norms are being violated to the extreme. This period has been marked with unimaginable atrocities by Turkish Armed Forces and special operations teams: extrajudicial execution of hundreds of civilians; towns razed to the ground by artillery, mortar and other heavy armor; families denied the right to retrieve their beloved ones’ dead bodies for months; civilians trapped in basements and burnt alive by chemical weaponry; people machine gunned while carrying their wounded to the hospital.

Esma Suna and Her Unborn Baby

“If you go to the Kizilayi city center in Ankara today,” said Kemal Bulbul, an Alevi author and rights activist, “and ask people if they are Alevis, the majority will deny it.”

Bulbul explained that the reason is the systematic persecution and discrimination Alevis have been exposed to. “For what has been experienced cannot be erased from memories. Alevis were not only massacred in Yozgat, Tokat, Amasya, but also in Thrace and the Mediterranean. The dargahs of Alevis have been raided, plundered, burnt down and destroyed.”

Oppression of Alevis in Turkey is legal and official. A law enacted in 1925 — which is still in effect in Turkey — openly discriminates against Alevis, banning their religious centers and denying their faith. This law required the closure of the tekkes (dervish lodges), zaviyes (central dervish lodges) and tombs. It also included the closure of Alevi religious centers, including their houses of prayer — known as cem houses in Turkish.

According to the law, “All the tekkes and zaviyes in the Turkish Republic, either in the form of wakf [religious foundations] or under the personal property right of its sheikh or established in any other way, are closed. Those used as mosques [cami] and mescits [small mosques] may be retained as such.”

Alevis have been subject to several mass slaughters at the hands of Muslims, and many Alevis might try to hide their Alevi faith for security reasons, but on many occasions they have been forced to accept it — before being tortured or murdered by Muslims. One such brutal occasion was the 1978 Maras massacre.

At least 105 Alevis were murdered in the city of Kahramanmaras, or Maras, in December 1978 by Turkish nationalists (otherwise known as Grey Wolves) and Islamists. “The actual perpetrators of the killings were not only a group of conspirators,” wrote Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher with the Human Rights Watch. “Rather they were ordinary people, villagers and townsfolk who became capable of horrific acts of torture and murder of young and old, women and men. The accounts of the killings bear out the fact that the question of religious affiliation became central as a means of demarcating who needed to be purged. Witnesses testified in court that victims were frequently asked by their assailants to prove that they were Muslim and Turkish.”

According to official sources, at least 200 Alevi-owned houses were burnt down and 100 offices were attacked and damaged. A great majority of the Alevi population left the town after the incidents. Among the Alevi victims of the massacre was Esma Suna, who wasshot to death in her eighth month of pregnancy.

According to news reports, Musa Suna described the murder: “They broke down the door and entered the house. They shouted at us, ‘There is no place for you in this world,’ and attacked us. They set fire to our house and shot their guns. I opened my eyes at the hospital.”

During the Maras trial, the murder was described as follows:

Esma Suna said to the attackers, “Brothers, don’t do this unscrupulousness. We too are Muslims. You will regret it tomorrow. What will you gain from killing us? We might die, but those who remain will live together. Don’t do that.” An attacker said, “How come you are Muslim? Recite shahada [There is no God but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah] then!” Even though Esma recited shahada, the attacker did not believe her, and attacked the house until 4:30 p.m. Then the attackers shouted at their targets, “We will not do anything to you. Go outside and surrender.” Then Musa’s daughter Fidan Suna and nephew Aziz Tutun went onto the balcony and were shot.

After Esma Suna and her baby were murdered, her dead baby was removed from her belly. A photo of the child — taken by a journalist during the medical procedure — became one of the symbols of the Maras massacre.

Alaittin Gültekin Yazicioglu, the doctor who operated on the mother and her baby, told the newspaper Hürriyet, “When Esma Suna was taken to the hospital, she was wounded. She was pregnant. I knew her family. She was a member of an Alevi farming family who had settled in Maras from Elbistan. There were three bullets in her body. They had shot her randomly. A bullet penetrated her from her back and exited through her stomach. After my first examination, I understood the baby was dead. So we tried to save the mother. We took the baby out. A bullet hit the baby in his spinal cord. I tried so hard, but I could not save the mother.

“When I took the baby out, with deep sadness in my heart. I showed it to the journalist in the operation room. I wanted to show this savagery to the entire world — to all human beings.”

The photo of the doctor and the dead baby turned Yazicioglu’s career upside-down. That year, almost all members of the hospital personnel were given letters of appreciation. But because of this photo, Yazicioglu was not given one. His place of work was changed and he was appointed to work in the city of Usak.

These are only six of the millions of non-Turkish and non-Muslim citizens of Turkey who have been murdered or forced to live in fear and misery, trying to hide their names and identity for their entire lives.

But this is almost a mission impossible. For, since the founding of the republic in 1923, Turkey has been secretly coding its Armenian, Greek, Jewish, Syriac and other non-Muslim minorities. Turkey’s Population Directorate codes Greeks using the number 1, Armenians 2 and Jews 3.

If you are Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Jewish, Kurdish, Alevi, Yazidi or Alawite (Nusayri), the Turkish regime and many of its Turkish citizens seem determined to make you pay for your ethnic roots or religious beliefs — no matter how peace loving and law-abiding you are.

If there are some areas in which Turkey is an expert, it is racism, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Millions of people have become the victims of this discriminatory regime for having been born into non-Turkish parents or believing in a faith other than Islam.

What has the West — the civilized world — done in response? It has awarded Turkey with NATO membership and candidacy for membership in the European Union.

(Robert Jones’s piece originally appeared at https://philosproject.org)


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