Syriac associations launch signature campaign to overturn priest’s jail sentence

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A petition launched by the European Syriac Union (ESU) and supported by 11 other associations demanding freedom for a Syriac priest in Turkey who was recently sentenced to prison on terrorism-related charges has gathered more than 4,000 signatures so far.

Titled “Freedom for Monk Aho,” the petition was initiated shortly after a Turkish court sentenced priest Sefer (Aho) Bileçen from the Mor Yakup Church to 25 months in prison on charges of aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The jail sentence was handed down to Bileçen by the Mardin 4th High Criminal Court after he was arrested and released pending trial four days later in southeastern Mardin province in January 2020.

The priest’s indictment included accusations based on an informant’s testimony and a 2018 gendarmerie report claiming that his monastery, located in the country’s predominantly Kurdish Southeast, was visited by alleged members of the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU and the US.

Among the associations supporting the campaign initiated by the ESU two weeks ago are the Federation of Syriac Germany (HSA), the Turabdin Development Associations Federation (DETA), the Netherlands Assyrian Federation, the Turabdin Platform and the Syriac-Germany Association.

David Vergili, editor-in-chief of the Syriac Sabro newspaper and ESU co-president, on Wednesday told the Mezopotamya news agency that the sentence has caused fear and worry among the Syriacs, who couldn’t understand how a priest can be accused of something he did as a requirement of his faith.

“Father Aho did the humane thing to do. This can happen in every monastery. Therefore, we cannot accept the charges [against him],” Vergili said, referring to claims that Bileçen offered food to some PKK militants in 2018.

“The transfer of Assyrian properties in Mardin to the Directorate of Religious Affairs caused great concern among Assyrians. Then, the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque and the attacks in north and east Syria, where Assyrian villages are also located, raised their concerns even more,” Vergili said, indicating that the jail sentence given to Bileçen was part of the ongoing oppression of Syriacs.

The Assyrians are an autochthonous Christian group who were the victims of massacres and forced displacement at the beginning of the 20th century in what is today recognized by many as genocide. This, and ongoing discrimination decades later drove many thousands to seek safety abroad.

As a result, there are only around 25,000 Assyrians left in Turkey.

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