Turkey: Why are non-Muslim cemeteries attacked?

Attacks against the cemeteries of Christians, Jews and Yazidis have a long history in the country.

Jewish cemetery desecration in Turkey. Source: antisemitism.org.il.
Jewish cemetery desecration in Turkey. Source: antisemitism.org.il.
Uzay Bulut
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. She is currently a research student at the MA Woodman-Scheller Israel Studies International Program of the Ben-Gurion University in Israel.

The Istanbul community woke up on July 15 to learn of painful news published on social media: A Jewish cemetery had been subjected to the most cruel and callous attack. Gravestones had been desecrated, and some of the badly damaged graves had even been opened.

The Chief Rabbinate Foundation of Turkey announced on Twitter that the Jewish cemetery in Istanbul’s Haskoy neighborhood was targeted at midnight and 36 gravestones destroyed.

A later investigation revealed that the scope of the attack was even more devastating than earlier thought. The marble stones of 81 graves were broken, according to the newspaper Duvar. Some graves were found to have been excavated.

“After the attack, many people went to the cemetery to check whether the tombstones of their relatives were broken.

“Those who destroyed the graves are allegedly children under the age of 18. The police took five children into custody for the damage they did to the gravestones.

“Beni Yohay went to the cemetery to check the graves of his relatives and said: ‘This is barbaric. This is a burial place. My blood froze when I saw the broken graves. I don’t understand why they are doing this. This is not the first time such an attack has been carried out.’

“Eli Yohani also went to the cemetery after seeing the news on social media. He said: ‘Here are the graves of my father-in-law, grandfather, grandmother, and my father, who died two months ago. … Things like this have also happened a few times before. There is nothing to say. Shame on those who did this.’ ”

Jewish cemetery desecration in Turkey. Source: antisemitism.org.il.

Muhlis Tatlı claimed that the children may have targeted the cemetery upon the instruction of adults. “Kids don’t do such things. An elder may have directed them,” he said. A shopkeeper who works next to the cemetery said that the graves were previously desecrated by those searching for gold.

Garo Paylan, an Armenian Parliament member of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), wrote on Twitter:

“The fact that the attack on the Jewish cemetery was carried out by children aged between 11 and 13 does not alleviate the situation; it aggravates it. Who and what mentality have filled those children with hatred towards Jews?”

Attacks against non-Muslim cemeteries are widespread in Turkey. When Assyrian (Syriac) Christians in the city of Mardin, located in southeast Turkey, went to the cemetery of the Mor (Saint) Paul and Peter on June 29—their namesake’s feast day—Christians saw that the graves had been destroyed and the bones thrown out.

David Vergili, a prominent Syriac-Assyrian journalist and editor-in-chief of the Syriac newspaper Sabro, has family roots in Mardin. He has lived in Europe for the past 20 years and written about minorities in Turkey for more than a decade. Vergili told JNS:

“In the past two months, the graves of Syriac and Jewish communities in Turkey have been attacked and destroyed. The graves and holy places of the Armenian community have also experienced similar attacks before. These incidents and especially the attacks on the sacred places, graves and values of non-Muslim communities are not new and they constitute hate crimes. These attacks have racist, religious motives and mostly target groups that are not part of the Turkish-Islamic ideology. These attacks have been happening for years and there has been no improvement in the way the government responds to them. Given the past trauma of and attacks against the Christian and Jewish communities as well as the Turkish government’s denial of its own crimes, it is obvious that even the dead are affected by these violations. The hatred and humiliating discourse towards minority groups in Turkey manifest themselves as direct attacks on minority groups. Not only the living non-Muslim minority communities, but also their sacred places and their dead are not fully recognized and respected by large segments of the society and the government/state of Turkey.”

As Vergili pointed out, Armenian cemeteries in Turkey are also familiar with similar attacks. An Armenian cemetery in the province of Van was reportedly destroyed by bulldozers in August of 2021. A deputy of the HDP, Murat Sarısaç, asked Turkey’s vice president, Fuat Oktay, in a parliamentary motion:

“Has any investigation been initiated regarding the destruction of the Armenian cemetery?

Why are the Armenian cemeteries, cultural and religious structures in Van not protected? If there is a protection measure, why do similar destructions occur frequently?

Will you take any initiative to repair the destroyed cemeteries, cultural and belief structures in Van?

Do you have any plans to protect the many derelict Armenian cemeteries in Van?

Has an inventory of Armenian monasteries, churches and cultural structures in Van been prepared?” 

Oktay is yet to answer the questions.

Sarısaç also pointed out these sorts of incidents are often reported in Van. “In 2017, a public toilet, some sort of dressing room and a carpark were built on Dilkaya Tumulus and the Armenian cemetery in Van,” he continued. “Because of treasure hunters and the negligence of the authorities, precious historical and cultural patrimony in and surrounding Van are damaged.”

Attacks by Muslims against non-Muslim cemeteries—the cemeteries of Christians, Jews and Yazidis—have a long history in Turkey. Ottoman Turkey committed genocide against Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks from 1913 to 1923. This crime is also recognized as genocide by the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Following the genocide, cultural and religious heritage belonging to those communities including their cemeteries were targeted, and in many cases, destroyed, across Turkey.

Even after the founding of Turkey in 1923, such attacks continued. During the pogrom that targeted Greeks, Armenians and Jews in Istanbul on Sept. 6-7, 1955, cemeteries were violently attacked. According to an article by Speros Vryonis Jr., a historian who specialized in Byzantine, Balkan and Greek history, Turks “profaned and soiled the Greek Orthodox religious vessels; they smashed and dug up the graves in Greek cemeteries, throwing out the bones and remains of the dead; they affected circumcisions on some elderly priests on the streets during the pogrom.”

Yazidis, a non-Muslim community native to the Middle East, are also victims of such assaults. Subsequent Turkish governments and Muslim citizens of Turkey have made varied efforts to Islamize the Yazidis. Author Yasar Batman writes that Yazidi temples were destroyed, and Yezidi graves were defaced in Turkey.

According to Batman, Yazidis lay their dead in graves on their backs facing the sun. But many Yazidi graves were opened, and the dead bodies were placed according to Islamic rules—this time facing the Qibla, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.

Sadly, Turkey has transported this destructive tradition to Cyprus. Christian and Jewish cemeteries have been destroyed in the Turkish-occupied northern part of the Republic of Cyprus since the 1974 Turkish military invasion. According to a 2012 report,

“Even the cemeteries in occupied Cyprus became a target for the mania for the destruction of the Turkish invaders and their associates.

“British journalist John Fielding reported (The Guardian, May 6, 1976) that he and his TV crew had visited 26 villages in occupied Cyprus where Greek Cypriots used to live and did not find a single cemetery which had not been desecrated.

“In another report from Cyprus The Observer (March 29, 1987) states that vandals desecrated a great number of British graves in occupied Cyprus, some of them belonging to soldiers who fought in the First World War. According to the article, in the British cemetery at Famagusta all the crosses have been smashed, while at a cemetery in Kyrenia, the graves had been opened and the headstones smashed to pieces.”

Among the desecrated and destroyed cemeteries in the occupied north of Cyprus is the historic Margo Jewish Cemetery in southeast Nicosia.

Why are attacks against non-Muslim graves so commonly committed by many Turks, and why is there so much apathy towards these abuses? Ayse Gunaysu, a member of the Commission Against Racism and Discrimination of the Human Rights Association (IHD), told JNS:

“Turkey is a land of genocide. After the 1913-23 genocide against Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, hatred against non-Muslims has been encouraged by the state’s anti-minority policies ever since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, and this hatred has dominated the societal climate. The destruction of cemeteries is the destruction of the memory closely linked to the genocide.

“Photographs of the looting of the stores and businesses during the Sept. 6-7, 1955 pogrom in Istanbul are often shared, creating a perception as if this pogrom stemmed from “hostility towards the wealth of non-Muslims.

“However, the Sept. 6-7 pogrom showed a particularly terrible face in the attacks on churches and the graves of saints in churchyards. Graves were destroyed, and bones were scattered. Even a newly buried dead body was hung from a tree and a Turkish flag was stuck in its stomach. Photographs by Dimitros Kalumenos, the official photographer of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, published in two books by Istos publications, recorded the devastating images of attacks on churches and cemeteries during the pogrom. Hatred of non-Muslims is a state of existence that dominates large sections of Turkish society. As long as this hatred continues in Turkey, the destruction of non-Muslim graves will continue.”

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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