The 22 remaining schools run by minority communities of Armenians, Jews and Greeks in Turkey are suffering – both financially and due to the declining number of students.
Garo Paylan, an Armenian MP of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), came up with a policy idea at Turkey’s parliament to help the minority schools in the country to survive. On November 2, Paylan submitted a proposal to the Planning and Budget Committee to “increase resources for minority schools” during the 2022 budget meetings of Turkey’s ministry of national education, the newspaper Agos reported.
“Minority schools are also the schools of this country,” Paylan said. “Armenians, Greeks and Jews are trying to keep minority schools alive, and they are trying to pay salaries for their teachers, and to meet the needs of students, but they do not have enough resources.”
The budget of the Ministry of National Education spends 10,000 to 12,000 TL on each student at Turkish schools, added Paylan, suggesting that 4,000 students currently studying at minority schools should also get 10,000 TL each from the budget. If applied, the proposal would lead to the allocation of 40 million TL (around $4 million) from the ministerial budget to minority schools of the Armenian, Jewish and Greek communities in Istanbul.
“I am sure that both the Minister and the [ruling] AK Party deputies who claim that there is justice and equality [in this country] will support our proposal, and minority schools will get their due from the budget in this country,” Paylan added.
Sadly, Paylan was wrong. His proposal was rejected by the votes of the deputies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The deputies of the opposition parties – Good Party (IYI) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) did not vote and abstained. Once again, Turkish-Islamic supremacy that shows no regard for non-Turks was on full display that day at Turkey’s parliament.
Paylan is no stranger to Turkey’s discrimination against minority schools. Before he entered Turkey’s parliament as a deputy, he worked as the principal of Yeşilköy Armenian School in Istanbul. In a 2010 interview, he said that Armenian schools depend on donations for survival and have no income or budget allocated to them by the Ministry of Education: “We asked the [Turkish] state for 2,000 liras per student; urgent action must be taken,” Paylan said.
For the past eleven years, however, no action has been taken, and the situation has been deteriorating.
The greatest problem minority schools face is the rapidly declining population of non-Muslims in Turkey. The current percentage of Christians and Jews totals only 0.1 percent of the entire population of Turkey, which stands at over 80 million.
One major cause of this population collapse was the 1913-23 Christian genocide committed by Ottoman Turkey against Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, who had lived in the area for millennia. According to Professor Israel Charny, a prominent genocide scholar and the editor of the two-volume Encyclopedia of Genocide, more than 3.5 million Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians perished in the genocide.
The genocide targeted not only the lives of Christians, but also their cultural heritage including schools that they had built with much sacrifice and hard work.
The Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute reports that
“In the 19th century, especially after the ratification of the national constitution, the Western Armenians began to embark upon regulating and developing their domestic life in spite of the existing numerous obstacles and prohibitions. Permission for building Armenian educational and cultural institutions was acquired with great difficulty…. From the middle of the 19th century unisex colleges were opened in all the provincial centers and villages of Western Armenia,” which is what the Armenian highlands (historic Armenia) within Turkey’s borders are called.
“There existed over 1,996 Armenian schools with 173,022 pupils; of these 1,251 schools with over 76,548 pupils were on the territories of Western Armenia before World War I.”
Today, there are no Armenian schools left in Western Armenia or eastern Turkey. The few surviving Armenian and other minority schools operate in Istanbul and still face systematic discrimination.
And all of this seems a continuation of a centuries-long tradition that classifies Christians and Jews as dhimmis, or second-class, “tolerated” subjects of an Islamic state forced to pay a tax to stay alive. This classification – along with other dehumanizing traditions concerning jihad and kafirs (infidels) – justifies discrimination and even violent crimes against non-Muslims. During and after the 1913-23 genocide, for instance, many properties belonging to Armenians and other Christians – including schools and other educational facilities – were “lost” or were stolen.
The researcher Raffi Bedrosyan wrote:
“All of these assets, except the two hospitals and some of the Istanbul Armenian churches and schools, disappeared after 1915. If not destroyed outright or left to deteriorate, the church and school buildings were converted into banks, mosques, state schools, community centers, stables or warehouses.”
The government policy of seizing properties owned by Christians and Jews has continued even after the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923 although the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which recognized the boundaries of the state of Turkey, established the rights of Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities including their educational rights.
In violation of the Lausanne Treaty and international human rights agreements, however, properties belonging to religious minorities including schools continue to be seized by the Turkish government, other institutions or individuals. According to a 1992 report by Helsinki Watch entitled “Denying Human Rights and Ethnic Identity: The Greeks of Turkey”,
“The Greek community has also been angered by Turkish attempts to take over schools that can no longer be used for their original purpose, due to the shrinking of the Greek population. Once a building is no longer used for its original purpose, Greeks say that the Turks declare it to be abandoned and expropriate it.”
In 2003, Dr. Tessa Hofmann, a scholar of Armenian studies, published a comprehensive report titled “Armenians in Turkey Today.” In it, she described in detail the violations that Armenian and other non-Muslim organizations suffered in Turkey, writing, in part:
“Schools are subjected to similarly abusive interference concerning the education of teachers. The number of weekly hours teaching is allowed in the Armenian language, (currently 4), who is and is not allowed to attend an Armenian school or how schools are run. For instance, the authorities can and do paralyze the operations of schools at will. Violent attacks on schools also occur on occasions, though they are more often targeted at churches or cemeteries.”
A 2013 report by Turkey’s History Foundation, “The Minority Schools from Past to Present,” echoed the problems mentioned in Hofmann’s 2002 article:
“The parents who are citizens of Turkey have to prove that their children are Armenian, Greek or Jewish. If Armenian or Greek children are registered as Muslim in their ID cards, it is never possible for them to register at minority schools.”
The report emphasized the fact that since the early years of the republic, the schools of minority citizens were seen as “sources of mischief that promote divisive ideas.” It also quoted the correspondence of the officials of the Turkish ministry of national education as evidence.
A participant in the report said:
“The 1970s were even more difficult. Children were investigated for their histories [in official records]. Sometimes they were found out to be Muslim a generation ago – that is, they had been forcibly Islamized for a while, but then returned to their true identities and nationalities. But they were not accepted as minority citizens. Many problems were experienced.”
The report added that the schools of Armenians, Greeks and Jews “melted” in 90 years after the founding of the Turkish republic in 1923:
“In the Ottoman Empire, there were 6,437 minority schools, and in Istanbul alone, there were 302. Between 1894 and 2013, 6,415 minority schools were closed down. There are only 22 minority schools in Istanbul today. Sixteen belong to Armenians. All of the minority schools across Anatolia have been closed down.”
It is getting more and more impracticable for minority communities to maintain their schools while their populations keep shrinking as pressure on religious minorities is the norm in Turkey. In 2016, for instance, racist and hate-filled graffiti were written on the walls of some Armenian schools in Istanbul.
Textbooks in Turkey also includes content hostile to minority communities. According to a 2017 report by the Constantinopolitan Society,
“Anti-minority references continue to exist in schoolbooks used for teaching in Turkey. Turkish identity and nationalism are promoted as fundamental values in the education system, while minority culture is ignored. While school books do not include information about Greek minority, its history and culture, some of them include discriminatory, xenophobic statements against it.”
Assyrians in Turkey do not even have the legal right to establish their own schools. This is because they are not recognized as a minority in the Treaty of Lausanne. The only exception to this rule has been a private kindergarten opened in 2013 by Assyrians in Istanbul through donations. As Minority Rights Group International notes,
“Turkey has restricted the scope of the Treaty of Lausanne to Armenians, Jews and Rums [Greeks]. This has unlawfully left other non-Muslims, including Assyrians outside the protection of the Treaty. Assyrians have been particularly vocal in pointing out their unlawful exclusion and demanding the recognition of their rights under the Treaty. Because of this exclusion, they do not have the right to education in their mother tongue, something that many Assyrians wish to pursue. They also do not have the right to set up their own schools, enjoyed (albeit with state restrictions) by other minorities.”
Sadly, while all of these abuses and discrimination are taking place, the vast majority of the Turkish public remain either silent or complicit. The mainstream media of the country also turns a blind eye or even plants more seeds of hate in the Turkish people against non-Turks. According to the 2019 “Hate Speech and Discriminatory Discourse in Media” report by Hrant Dink Foundation, Armenians were the most targeted group in the Turkish media. They were followed by Syrians, Greeks, Jews, Greek Cypriots and Christians.
Even decades after the Christian genocide by Ottoman Turkey, both the ruling party and the political opposition of the Turkish republic refuse to support the minority schools and communities that are on the verge of extinction.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.