Assyrian Christian priest sentenced to two years imprisonment

Assyrian Christian Priest Father Sefer Bileçen, known as Father Aho, has been sentenced to two years and one month in prison by a Turkish court.

Father Aho was arrested by Turkish Gendarmerie along with two others on 9 January 2020 in the Assyrian town of Üçköy (Arkash in Syriac language) in Mardin province, southeast Turkey. He was reportedly accused of providing food and water to members of the People’s Defence Forces (HPG), the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey has been designated a ‘terrorist organisation’.

Prior to his arrest, Father Aho had been taking care of the 1500 year-old Mor Yakub Monastery in Mardin province for several years. In February 2020 he was charged with joining a terrorist organisation.

A human rights activist from the Syriac community in Turkey told CSW: “The Turkish authorities have been making every effort to erase the Christian heritage of Turkey; they have created a hostile environment, making it extremely difficult for the very small Christian community in Turkey to survive.  They are suffocating us.”

CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW is deeply disappointed by this court ruling, which sends yet another negative message to Turkey’s religious minorities. We call for an urgent review of the charges levelled against Father Aho, and for his lawyer to be allowed unhindered access to all documents and testimonies related to his case in order to facilitate due process. We also call on the international community to press the Turkish government to end all forms of discrimination against religious minorities, and to uphold its constitutional obligations to protect and respect the rights of all citizens regardless of their religious affiliation or ethnic background.”

In the 1990s, thousands of Christians and Kurds were forced out of their villages and towns when the conflict between the Turkish army and the PKK escalated. Today Assyrians in Turkey face challenges related to their religious and cultural identities under the ruling party, which has propagated the view that to be Turkish is to be a Sunni Muslim.