[Moderator] The news is approved for posting as it appeared in the source and uses the disputed label "Assyrians" to describe Syriac Orthodox Christians.
Taipei Times, April 5, 2005
For the first time ever, ethnic Assyrians gather in Turkey to
celebrate New Year
GOOD TIMING: Assyrians gathered celebrate their holiday after the
Turkish government OK'd the party as it seeks to show the EU its
tolerance of ethnic groups
NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MIDYAT, TURKEY
Tuesday, Apr 05, 2005,Page 6
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
EU, has officially allowed the celebration by the Assyrians, members
of a Christian ethnic group that traces its roots 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 EU," 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 EU that it
is making democratic changes."
The festivities on Friday were the culmination of a celebration that
started on March 21, the first day of the Assyrian New Year. Behind
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 1980s, under those pressures, thousands
of Assyrians have emigrated abroad. Kurds, with whom Assyrians have
long had a tense relationship, are now the majority in Midyat, which
until just a generation ago was 75 percent Assyrian.
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 country."