Turkish lawmaker George Aslan, the only Assyrian in the Turkish parliament, caused a row on Monday when he used a bit of his time during a budget debate to deliver a Christmas message in Syriac.
Aslan said he did this because not all Assyrians speak Turkish, but nationalist lawmakers were enraged that any language besides Turkish would be used at the podium.
Aslan is a member of the Peoples’ Equality and Democracy Party, which was formerly known as HEDEP, but changed to the shorter acronym DEM in November, because the Turkish Supreme Court said its old abbreviation was too close to HADEP, the name of a party that was banned in 2003.
HEDEP is a pro-Kurdish party, and so was HADEP, which was dissolved because it was allegedly linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a banned extremist organization. HEDEP was created during the last election cycle when the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) was worried that the government might ban it and it lost some support after throwing in with unsuccessful opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu in the last presidential election instead of fielding its own pro-Kurdish candidate. HDP therefore ran some candidates under the Green Left Party slate, prompting the Green Left Party to morph into HEDEP.
HEDEP leaders felt that forcing their acronym to change to DEM would confuse voters even more than the rather tormented history of their party already had, so the Supreme Court was maliciously attempting to put a “new judicial obstacle” in their path.
In all of its permutations, DEM has been friendly to the Assyrian Christians of southeastern Turkey, who are allies of the Kurds. Some Assyrians who fled after getting caught in skirmishes between the Turkish military and the PKK have been returning to Turkey, increasing their number and political clout. In October, the Assyrians opened a new house of worship in Istanbul – the first new church in Turkey since the founding of the modern Turkish republic in 1923.
The new church was named the Syriac Orthodox Church of St. Ephrem. Syriac is the Aramaic dialect spoken by most Assyrians, so that was the language Aslan chose when he offered them a Christmas greeting on Monday.
“Starting with our Greek, Armenian and Assyrian citizens living in Turkey, I congratulate all Christians on Christmas. I hope the new year brings love and peace to our country and the whole world,” Aslan said in Turkish before repeating the message in Syriac.
Aslan’s brief remarks in Syriac did not sit well with lawmakers from the nationalist “Good Party,” or IYI, which insisted that only Turkish should be spoken in parliamentary addresses.
The IYI Party was supposed to be part of Kilicdaroglu’s presidential run, but its leader Meral Aksener decided he was not electable enough to support. Kilicdaroglu forced President Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a runoff in May but lost with 48 percent to Erdogan’s 52 percent of the vote.
“Are we watching a theater? He should speak this at home. This is the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, not a personal estate,” objected IYI deputy Lutfu Turkkan.
“We did not come from another planet,” Aslan responded. “We are the autochthonous people of this land. This language did not come from another planet.”
He might count himself lucky that IYI did not object to his using a Greek term like “autochthonous.”
“You will accept this language. This is a richness for Turkey,” Aslan said. Another IYI member, Yasin Ozturk, decided not to accept the richness of Syriac and stormed out of the chamber.
Aslan was supported by Deputy Speaker Sirri Sureyya Onder, a fellow member of the DEM party, who noted there were no objections when he offered a prayer in Arabic for MP Hasan Bitmez, who died of a heart attack he suffered last week while railing against Israel at the podium.
“You did not object when I read a verse in Arabic, I ask why you object to this one, you say it is not a verse. Let me tell you another verse; your languages are also verses of Allah,” Onder said.
Aslan told Voice of America News (VOA) on Friday that he was surprised by the vehemence of IYI’s objections. He and other DEM legislators acknowledged that the national constitution makes Turkish the official language of Turkey, but argued that it does not expressly forbid using other languages in Parliament.
VOA noted that transcriptions of Turkish parliamentary sessions routinely omit anything said in a language other than Turkish, replacing them with an ellipsis and footnotes such as, “Non-Turkish words were used by the speaker in these sections.”