An Assyrian priest and two other Assyrian Christians were arrested Friday in Turkey and slapped with terror charges for allegedly offering bread and water to Kurdish militants who visited his monastery, according to reports.
Priest Sefer Bileçen of the Mor Yakup Monastery in southeast Turkey was detained last Thursday, according to the pro-Kurdish Mezopotamya news agency in addition to two other Assyrian Christians, Musa Tash Takin from Sidri and Youssef Yar from the Üçköy. They remain detained.
According to the outlet, Turkish gendarme accused the pastor of aiding and abetting the Kurdish militant outfit aligned with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, a group recognized by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization.
Bileçen’s arrest reportedly came in response to testimony provided by a member of the PKK-aligned People’s Defense Forces (HPG) who claimed that Bileçen gave bread and water to HPG members when they visited the church in 2018.
Bileçen is said to be the only caretaker of the monastery located in the town of Mardin.
Evgil Türker told Mezopotamya news that the arrest of Bileçen was unnecessary and called for his release.
"As men of God, priests have to comply when somebody asks for help, no matter what their religion, race, language or ideology," Türker was quoted as saying.
Türker compared Bileçen’s case to that of American missionary Andrew Brunson. Brunson, who served for two decades as a missionary in Turkey, spent over two years in prison in Izmir after he was accused of supporting Kurdish fighters and the Gülen movement, charges that Brunson claimed were false.
"We may not have a [U.S. President Donald] Trump of our own, but Turkey will have a second case of pastor Brunson," Türker was quoted as saying.
Reports of Bileçen’s arrest drew the ire of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a congressionally mandated panel of independent experts who advise the White House, Congress and the State Department on Religious Freedom issues.
“USCIRF is concerned by initial reports that authorities have detained Father Sefer ‘Aho’ Bileçen, priest of the Mor Yakup Church in Nusaybin, #Turkey, and two other members of the small Syriac Orthodox community for unclear reasons,” a tweet from the commission reads.
The Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights reports that the priest and the two Christians were taken to an Üçköys village police station and then sent to Mardin.
“We at the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights express our full solidarity with the three Christian detainees,” a statement from the group reads. “We hold the Turkish authorities fully legal responsibility for their physical integrity, and we demand that they release them immediately and without any delay.”
The Syrian and Iraqi Christian humanitarian group A Demand for Action confirmed the arrests through sources on the ground in Turkey.
“While the two lay people were arrested in their villages, Father Aho Bileçen was forced to follow the authorities after a raid at the monastery,” A Demand for Action Facebook statement reads.
“These arrests have left the 3,000 remaining Christians of the Syriac-Orthodox faith and Assyrian-Syriac ethnicity in a state of fear and confusion. This kind of behavior by the Turkish authorities is the reason why the vast majority of Christians of Tur Abdin have left the region, and live in scattered.”
According to A Demand for Action, the Mor Yakup Monastery was closed for two decades before Bileçen became a monk. The monastery is situated in an area that serves as a focal point in battles between the PKK and the Turkish government.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, told the U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern that Assyrians have been targeted and massacred for their ethnicity and religion for centuries.
“Although they have been left all alone by the world powers, they have been so resiliently trying to hold on to their ancient homeland,” she said. “And they need the voice and support of faithful Christians and all other human rights advocates more than ever now.”
Since a failed coup attempt in 2016 that was blamed on the Gülen movement, the Turkish regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has engaged in a giant crackdown on any person who is suspected of having ties to the coup attempt or Kurdish rebel groups. Tens of thousands have been arrested as a result.
USCIRF ranks Turkey as a “Tier 2” country of concern for religious freedom violations in its 2019 annual report, stating that “religious freedom in Turkey remained deeply troubling.”
“The lack of any meaningful progress on the part of the Turkish government to address longstanding religious freedom issues was continued cause for concern,” the USCIRF report states. “Many serious limitations on the freedom of religion or belief continued, threatening the continued vitality and survival of minority religious communities in the country…”