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Turkey's Syriacs demanding right to own names

ISTANBUL- Hürriyet Daily News | 7/13/2011 12:00:00 AM | Vercihan Ziflioğlu

Turkey’s Syriac community, who adopted Turkish surnames, now want their original surnames back. Yet, a top cour says that the laws don’t allow such a move

Members of Turkey’s Syriac Christian community are leading a legal struggle to adopt last names that reflect their identity despite a Constitutional Court ruling earlier this year that barred one Syriac from altering his last name.

“As with every other citizen of the Turkish Republic, we also adopted Turkish last names with the advent of the Surname Law [in 1934.] Naturally everyone would want to bear names and last names that are in accordance with their own culture,” Mor Grigoriyos Melki Ürek, the Syriac Metropolitan of the eastern province of Adiyaman, told Hürriyet Daily News in a telephone interview.

On March 17, 2011, Turkey’s Constitutional Court ruled against the abrogation of the Surname Law of 1934 that forbids Turkish citizens from adopting foreign last names in a lawsuit filed by Favlus Ay, a Turkish citizen of Syriac descent, who wanted to change his name to Paulus Bartuma. Ay first appealed to a court in Midyat, a district in the southeastern province of Mardin, but the suit was then sent to the Constitutional Court which rejected the appeal by a very small margin, with eight judges ruling against the law and nine in favor.

Citizenship bond

“Politicians say the important thing is the bond of citizenship, whereas the laws are forcing everyone to become a Turk. It is not only Turks who live in Turkey; this is an extremely chauvinistic attitude,” Ahmet Fazıl Tamer, a lawyer working for the Human Rights Association, or the İHD, told the Daily News by phone.

Another Syriac Christian, İskender Oktay, who holds both Turkish and Swedish citizenship, did not encounter any problems when he appealed to the court to change his last name to Debasso.

“The reason why the suit filed by İskender Oktay came to such a rapid conclusion was because he is a Swedish citizen; the possibility of this issue entering Europe’s agenda was surely taken into consideration,” Tamer said. “The important thing is to prove that the last name you want to adopt truly belongs to your family. Plus you have to explain well the meaning [of your name...] I guess the course that a lawsuit will take depends on the court of the province where your name is registered, the discretion of the prosecutor and the civil registry,” said Tuma Özdemir, the president of the Mesopotamia Culture and Solidarity Association, or Mezo-Der, who acted as a court witness on Debasso’s behalf.

Even though they encountered no problems in altering Debasso’s last name, some members of the Syriac community face hardships when they attempt to change both their first and last names, Özdemir added.

 “An individual bears no such responsibility in terms of explaining or proving anything. A person should be able to adopt any first and last name of their choice in a democratic system,” Tamer said.

Such appeals to the İHD by people who want to change their names have become more frequent, with the largest number of appeals coming from Kurds, he said. Ay could also bring his case before the European Court of Human Rights, based on the sixth and eighth articles of the Human Rights Treaty, he added.

Debasso said he had been living in Sweden for 35 years and that he had changed his last name while residing there. “I do not want anyone to be isolated because of my ethnic roots. I am a child of Mesopotamia, of this land. I did not immigrate back [into Turkey,] I [merely] stayed apart and returned back to my country. I wanted to be here,” he said.

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