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Coming Home

Syriac Christians return to their homeland in Turkey

For the few dozen Christians living in villages near the ancient Syriac Orthodox monastery of Mar Evgin, the cliffhanging sanctuary represents hope. As they gaze on it at night, bathed in light, they know their church is with them. On those nights when the electricity fails and the monastery remains in darkness, they panic.

“They call up the monastery asking, ‘Why is there no light?’ ” says the Rev. Joaqim Unfal, the sole monk in residence, who runs the monastery with a handful of lay people.

Mar Evgin dates to the fourth century and is one of the first monasteries built in Tur Abdin, the “mountain of the servants of God’ in Syriac. Despite the vicissitudes of fortune over 16 centuries — Roman persecutions, Arab Muslim incursions, prosperity, Timur the Lame’s assault, and centuries of obscurity — Tur Abdin remained the historic heart of Syriac Christianity. By 1915 the region, which spans two southeastern provinces of modern Turkey and lies along the Turkish border with Syria and Iraq, included hundreds of thousands of Armenian and Assyro-Chaldean Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic.

Yet the events of the Saifo (or “sword” in Syriac), the term used by Syriac Christians to describe the genocide of Christians that began in 1915, altered Tur Abdin. Together with Armenians and ethnic Greeks, Turkey’s Christian population was devastated by a campaign of massacre and forced emigration that nearly wiped out the Christian inhabitants of an unraveling Ottoman Empire.

In the 1980’s, surviving Christians and their descendants found themselves caught in the crossfire between armed members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) and the Turkish state, a vicious 15-year conflict that raged until a cease-fire in 1999.

By the turn of the 20th century, Christianity in Tur Abdin had all but vanished — its longstanding Christian majority reduced to a tiny minority of some 3,500 people, and its ancient monasteries relegated to lonely outposts on the periphery of Christendom.

Standing on a ledge of Mar Evgin’s lofty mountain perch, Father Joaqim can see the plains of Syria and Iraq stretch out below, continuing on to the horizon. There, war, civil strife and the rise of ISIS have caused untold misery and the dramatic flight of peoples, including the depletion of indigenous Christian populations. Many see these events as the veritable extinction of Christianity in its birthplace.

However, events in Turkey in recent years offer a glimmer of hope that all is not lost. Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union led to significant international pressure on the nation to protect better its minorities. Meanwhile, abroad, members of the Syriac Christian diaspora collaborated to bring people and resources back to their ancestral homeland.

Today, undeterred by the horrors of war on the horizon, hope abounds in Tur Abdin, its people looking to a brighter future. Indeed, after a century of loss, many now view Tur Abdin as cradle of rebirth.

“I always have hope,” says Father Joaqim, who as a child left Turkey with his family and settled in the Netherlands. “We should not disconnect the hope. Hope should always stay alive.”

Among symbols of hope for local Christians, Mar Evgin distinguishes itself.

Home to some 350 monks at its height in the Middle Ages, the monastery had been virtually abandoned since its last monk passed away in 1968. For years, its caretakers were members of a Yazidi family who had taken up residence on the grounds.

In 2010, Father Joaqim’s superiors assigned the monk the task of rebuilding the monastery and renewing it as a center of Christian prayer. Today, a fourth-century church, some living quarters, a small school and a cloistered courtyard have returned to regular use.

Father Joaqim offers the divine mysteries daily, celebrates the Divine Liturgy on Sundays, provides pastoral care for three nearby Christian villages and welcomes some 15 students to study Syriac and the rites and traditions of Syriac Christianity.

“For us, the stones are not important,” says Father Joaqim, seated in the monastery’s central courtyard. “We care more for the spiritual stones.”

Opposite the monk, caves carved into the cliff face once housed monks, serving as reminders of the vast history to which the region’s Christians feel intimately connected.

“Many families have come to this monastery, and their faith became stronger.”

In much the same way, signs of reconstruction, both physical and spiritual, are evident in Christian enclaves all across Tur Abdin.

Heartened by the cease-fire — and encouraged by then Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit’s public call in 2001 for Turkey’s emigrated minorities to return — many of the Christian families who had fled during the unstable 90’s have filtered back to their homeland. As with Mar Evgin’s rebirth, abandoned Christian villages have begun to flower once again in Tur Abdin.

“We just took a step no one has done before,” says 25-year-old Ishok Demir. Although born and reared in Switzerland, Mr. Demir moved to the village of Kafro with his parents in 2006.

“We are giving an example to other Christians — to take the same step and to make the move.”

About 20 miles north of Mar Evgin, Kafro might be compared to Lazarus. Orthodox Syriac families who had left for Switzerland, Germany and Sweden organized themselves in order to return together. With the money they had saved in Europe, they built new, larger houses that today stand beside the ruins of their old, abandoned homes — retained as a testament to their former exile.

“After we did this, other villages saw what we had done and made the same move,” Mr. Demir says.

Since 1999, some seven villages in the area around Kafro have returned to life through the repatriation of Christians.

In Mardin, one of the larger cities of Tur Abdin, signs of this minor Christian renaissance are apparent in its hilly, ancient streets.

Down one such street lies Café Izla Art, named after Izalla, an ancient name for Mardin still used for nearby Mount Izla, on which dozens of ancient monasteries once flourished. Established in February 2015 by the Mardin Syriac Cultural and Solidarity Association, the café is a trendy spot where local youths of all creeds gather. Inspired by vintage films and magazines, the décor incorporates old movie posters and classic periodicals. Films, such as Charlie Chaplin’s “The Dictator,” are projected onto another wall.

A stack of copies of a monthly newspaper, Sabro, sits near the bar. Covering Syriac issues, the paper was established three years ago and is distributed across Tur Abdin and Istanbul.

“In the last three to four years, a dynamism has arrived in the area,” says Gabi Yerli, the café manager and president of the Mardin Syriac Cultural and Solidarity Association. A Syriac Orthodox Christian born in Istanbul to a Tur Abdin Syriac father and an Armenian Catholic mother, Mr. Yerli moved to Mardin 14 years ago with his family.

“Now I am doing this job to preserve our culture, to protect it,” he says.

A few blocks away, workers repair Mardin’s shuttered evangelical Protestant church. A Protestant mission in Tur Abdin was established by American missionaries in the 1810’s, and a church was erected 50 years later. Today, the Protestant community in Tur Abdin numbers a mere 30 people, half of whom live in Mardin, according to Pastor Ender Peker. Nevertheless, they share a common experience with the other Christian communities in the region.

“We are renewing this place not just for the Protestants living here, but also for nearly one million tourists visiting Mardin each year,” says the pastor, adding that this influx of visitors is an opportunity for the Protestant church to share its story.

For now, the church is a mass of rubble while stacks of child-sized wicker chairs used for Sunday school before the church closed 50 years ago litter the nave. Amid the construction work, these chairs appear as if frozen in time — remnants of a more vibrant era the pastor hopes to restore. Once the renovation is complete, he says, the building will serve both as a place of worship and a platform for interfaith activities.

The old quarter of Diyarbakir, another of Tur Abdin’s larger cities, is also home to an important, and now completed, church renovation project: Sourp Giragos Armenian Apostolic Church. Among the largest Armenian churches in the Middle East, it was closed during the genocide and repurposed several times — used, for instance, as a German army barracks in World War I and later as a textile factory. Roofless, it was not reopened as a church until 1960. In 2011, Sourp Giragos was restored to its former glory from funds donated by Armenians scattered throughout Turkey and the vast Armenian diaspora.

Today, the 25,000-square-foot complex includes the church with its many altars, parish houses, chapels, a school and a cafe. As with the Protestant church in Mardin, Sourp Giragos’s role goes beyond serving the handful of Armenian Christians who remain in Diyarbakir today; it is most of all a symbol of hope and perseverance for Armenians all across Turkey, and the world.

Even non-Christian Armenians, such as Ayla Karabakian, who descends from surviving families of the genocide who converted to Islam, come to the church to light candles. Ms. Karabakian says she feels drawn to Sourp Giragos on ethnic and cultural grounds. Some Diyarbakir Armenians reared as Muslims, such as Gaffur Türkay, have returned to their ancestral faith as adults, now that living as a Christian in Tur Abdin has again become possible.

As part of the process of “Turkification,” President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s project of cultural homogenization in post-Ottoman Turkey, languages other than Turkish were discouraged or banned. The Syriac language — a dialect of Aramaic, the language of Jesus — was among those suppressed. To this day, Syriac is forbidden in schools.

The Treaty of Lausanne, signed by Turkey in 1923 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, provides for the protection of Turkey’s minorities and education of non-Muslims in their own language in areas where their numbers form a “considerable proportion.” This article has never been implemented and, as a result, generations of Syriac Christians today only know the oral version of their language, which they have learned at home. Knowledge of the written, formal version of the language, which is used for the celebration of the Eucharist and in all the divine mysteries of the Syriac Catholic and Orthodox churches, is less common.

Yet today, the sound of children chanting prayers and hymns in Syriac is a feature of many churches across Tur Abdin. Where the government has done little to improve the situation — aside from allowing for the creation of graduate-level Syriac language programs in universities — churches have filled the gap by providing language classes on their premises.

The courtyard of Mar Barsawmo Syriac Orthodox Church in Midyat is full of children. Boys jump and pounce through beams of sun, chasing a soccer ball, while girls play hopscotch or braid one another’s hair. The parish church teaches some 80 students in classes held as often as six days a week during the summer.

Teacher Ayhan Gürkan signals the end of the play break with a discreet hand gesture, and all 30 students file into class. Once seated, they open their books and await his instructions. For the day, they have learned new words in Syriac and recited prayers and hymns in the language. Their next lesson will be reading from a comic book on the life of Jesus, in Turkish.

“We chose this book to teach them the story of Christ because they can understand better in Turkish,” says Mr. Gürkan. “They haven’t mastered written Syriac, yet.”

While such initiatives are signs of survival, every single act of Christian resilience in Tur Abdin is private or independent, devoid entirely of state backing or support.

In parallel to pastoral efforts to preserve the faith and culture in non-confrontational ways, many in this new generation of Christians in Tur Abdin have taken a more direct approach, engaging politics head on. They say these informal, crowded extracurricular projects are not enough; only visible, vocal advocacy will pressure the state to extend them their rights as a recognized minority.

This political awakening is due in large part to the growth of the Kurdish political cause. After the 1999 cease-fire, Kurdish nationalist political thinking moved away from the immediate demand for an independent state toward a push for improved minority rights. This crucial shift opened a window of opportunity for other minority groups, including Christians. While too few have any clout on their own, aligning with the more numerous and politically active Kurds has offered these Christian activists a fighting chance to improve their lot.

A product of this new political landscape, Februniye Akyol, a 27-year-old Syriac Christian, was elected co-mayor of Mardin last year, after running on the Democratic Regions Party ticket — a local-level political affiliate of an alliance that recently won 59 of the Grand National Assembly’s 550 seats.

Today, the municipal building and its official publications bear Turkish, Syriac and Arabic script to reflect the tongues heard in the streets of the polyglot city, a gesture of inclusion unthinkable just a few years ago.

“We now have a platform on which to fight for our rights,” says Ms. Akyol, sitting in her corner office. In the past, she says, minority groups were more guarded and conservative in their approach to politics.

“Now they are changing their attitudes, seeing that they can ally with existing political movements and have a voice.”

Part of the struggle facing the Christians in Tur Abdin is internal. Some in the community, chastened and traumatized by decades of suppression and persecution, are unwilling to demand more. Many fail to see hope when all around them, in the wider region, signs of despair abound.

“For some, the glass is half empty,” says Ms. Akyol. “I see it as half full.”

Downstream in this developing political current are other Tur Abdin Christians, many of whom are former émigrés who cut their teeth in politics and community organizing in Europe.

On a recent afternoon in Midyat, Tuma Çelik, a 52-year-old who hopes one day to serve in parliament, helps Evgil Türker, a 49-year-old Christian community organizer, move into the new headquarters of the Federation of Syriac Associations, an umbrella organization headed by Mr. Türker.

Mr. Türker spent 23 years living in Switzerland and returned to Tur Abdin in 2012. Mr. Çelik divided his 25 years abroad between Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, returning in 2011. Both men say their organizational and political experiences in the diaspora prepared them to make the most of political opportunities showing up now in their homeland.

“The political change happening here now can be seen in the context of a shift happening in the larger world,” says Mr. Çelik, who serves as editor-in-chief of the newspaper Sabro, which the Federation of Syriac Associations publishes.

“The world has shifted its focus on minorities and minority rights, and we have been able to see how this could work for the future of Turkey.”

While Tur Abdin’s Christians may take different paths in divining a place for their community in modern Turkey, together they all offer reasons to be hopeful.

Indeed, hope forms the core of Christianity’s continued survival in Turkey. However, it is a hope continuously in peril, as political realities shift around it. War in Syria and Iraq casts a dire shadow, and even without immediate threat of spillover, there have been grave repercussions in recent months.

In July, after Turkey conducted airstrikes on ISIS and Kurdish targets in Syria and northern Iraq, respectively, the cease-fire between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Turkish state broke down. Since then, tensions across Tur Abdin and southeast Turkey have escalated, resulting in violent confrontations and a significantly increased presence of the Turkish military across the region.

In this climate, Diyarbakir has reached a flash point. On a recent afternoon, mere blocks from Sourp Giragos Church, Kurdish protesters had unearthed cobblestones in the narrow streets of the old quarter, digging a small trench to obstruct the advancement of Turkish security vehicles.

For the Christians, renewed conflict threatens to pull the rug out from under their feet, shaking the very stability that halted their exodus and encouraged their return. Further, it could evaporate the possibility of political representation offered by Kurdish cease-fire politics.

Back at Mar Evgin Monastery, Father Joaqim points out Syriac inscriptions carved high up on the walls of the monastery’s buildings. Many centuries old, the inscriptions offer words of hope, telling of adversities overcome earlier in the Christian story. These etchings prove the troubles of today are by no means the first faced by the people of Tur Abdin.

A recently published hagiography of the monastery’s founder and patron, St. Eugenios, recounts the early years of the monastery: a litany of miracles from within the faith and of existential threats from without. According to the document, during one particularly trying moment, an angel appeared to the monk, saying: “Do not be afraid of those who can kill your body; they cannot kill your soul.”

This, Father Joaqim says, is the difference between the physical and the spiritual stones in the rebuilding process.

Irrespective of the turmoil nearby, he continues his work, buoyant with hope.

“We are going to get a very big bell from Germany,” he says excitedly. “It’s about four feet high and weighs one and a quarter tons.”

He and his colleagues are erecting a stone structure to support it. On top, they plan to place a cross.

But it is not the bell itself that matters, he says. It is what its knell will represent to Christians that counts.

“When we ring the bell, the villages all around will be filled with hope.

A regular contributor to ONE, Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.

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