When Mosul fell to Islamic State (IS) in summer 2014, up to 200,000 Iraqi Christians fled the city and nearby towns and villages of the Plains of Nineveh. Those who stayed were given a simple choice - accept the humiliating servitude of dhimmi status, convert to Islam or be killed. When they left, IS seized their homes – marking them with the Arabic letter ‘N’ for “Nisrani” (the Arabic for “Nazarene” i.e. Christian) along with the statement “Property of the Islamic State of Iraq”. Churches were also seized and converted into mosques or others forms of IS property.
Yet now that Mosul appears to be on the point of being re-taken from IS control, there is a real threat that Christians who lost everything in 2014 may not be allowed to return to their former homes in the city.
This threat comes from Turkey, a member of NATO and at least theoretically a country that aspires to join the EU. Turkey now has military forces in both Iraq and Syria – supposedly there to fight IS.
In Iraq, Turkey been throwing its weight around and insisting on the “right” of its troops to take part in the “liberation” of Mosul. This is despite the Iraqi government repeatedly telling Turkish troops to leave and Iraq’s parliament describing them as “hostile occupying forces” when they refused to do so. In fact, this month Turkey announced it was extending the deployment of its troops in Iraq to combat “terrorist organisations”, a term it uses to refer to Kurdish fighters as well as IS. Consequently, the Iraqi government has now requested an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. In an extraordinary move, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan responded to this by telling Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadai to “know his place”.
More worryingly for Iraqi Christians, President Erdogan also announced that after IS had been expelled from Mosul, “only Sunni Arabs, Turkomens, and Sunni Kurds” i.e. only Sunni Muslims, should be allowed back. President Erdogan’s statement has caused considerable alarm among Iraqi Christians. This is wholly understandable, not least because many of the Christians who until 2014 lived in Mosul and nearby towns were direct descendants of Christians who survived the genocide of eastern Christians a century ago. In this genocide an estimated three million or more Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians in the Ottoman Empire were either murdered or forced on a “death march” from their homes in Turkey to the Syrian and Iraqi desert, with tens of thousands dying or being killed on route by Turkish and Kurdish forces. This is a genocide that Turkey still adamantly refuses to accept responsibility for and even jails anyone who refers to it.
Re-creating the Ottoman Empire
These fears were then strengthened further at the end of last week when President Erdogan announced that Turkey no longer recognised the international boundaries set by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The Ottoman Empire’s support for Germany in the First World War led to its boundaries being redrawn by the allies at the end of the war. However, in 1919 Turkey’s leader Ataturk had raised an army to fight the Greeks in the west of his country and then used the army to attack Armenian Christian areas in the east killing an estimated 20,000 Christians and causing most others to flee. He then negotiated the Treaty of Lausanne with the allies. In return for being allowed to extend Turkey’s border to include the Armenian areas he had just conquered, Turkey renounced its claim to Mosul and recognised the independent states of Iraq and Syria, as well as British control of Cyprus – all of which had been part of the Ottoman Empire before WW1.
In rejecting the boundaries established in the Treaty of Lausanne, President Erdogan is therefore announcing that he wishes to re-create the Ottoman Empire. These claims have a particular resonance as Turkey has already claimed parts of the old Ottoman Empire that it gave up control of in the treaty of Lausanne. In 1974 it invaded northern Cyprus to create the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus there, which no other country except Turkey today recognises. One direct consequence of the Turkish invasion was the Islamisation of northern Cyprus. In fact one of the Turkish troops’ first acts was to convert the church in Kyrenia into a mosque, even though there were already two mosques in the town. A further 76 churches in the north were subsequently converted to mosques with others converted to military depots. Whilst most Christians fled to the south of the island, some remained. The remaining Orthodox churches left in the north have to obtain special permission from the Turkish authorities to hold a service – and since May have been allowed to hold only service per year. Such is the plight of Christians in the only place where Turkey has already tried to recreate the Ottoman Empire.