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The Mountain of the Servants of God

Caught in the middle of a guerrilla war, Syrian Orthodox Christians in southeastern Turkey struggle to hang onto their homeland.

On an isolated plateau in southeastern Turkey, bordered by the Tigris River and the Syrian frontier, a small community of Syrian Orthodox Christians lives in fear. They fear losing their homes and land. Men fear for the safety of their wives and daughters. All fear for their lives.

“There’s nothing left for the young here, nowadays,” says a Syrian Christian who now lives in Switzerland.

His father, a former jeweller, shrugs his shoulders and replies: “There’s never been much peace in this part of the world.”

The Tur Abdin (Syriac for the “Mountains of the Servants of God”) is a barren plateau of sandy soil and scrub oak forest. Situated at the crossroads of the Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic frontier, this Christian community’s mountainous homeland has provided refuge for centuries. Presently many are fleeing their homes – they are caught in the crossfire of a vicious guerrilla war fought by the Turkish government and the Kurdish tribes. The future of the Tur Abdin Syrian Christian community looks increasingly bleak.

The Christians of the Tur Abdin are a remnant of the Aramaic-speaking world that once included much of the ancient Near East. Their convents and monasteries played a significant role in the early history of the Eastern church. Isolated by geography, race and religion, these Christians have preserved the Syriac tongue, an Aramaic dialect similar to the language spoken by Jesus; it endures in the church’s liturgical ceremonies.

Worldwide there are an estimated 250,000 Syrian Christians, divided principally into two patriarchal hierarchies, Orthodox (sometimes known as Jacobite) and Catholic. After World War I, the Catholic patriarch established his seat in Beirut, where the current patriarch, Ignatius Anthony II Hayek, resides. The larger Syrian Orthodox Church is based in Damascus. Its patriarch, Moran Mar Ignatius Zaka I Iwas, governs a scattered community that stretches as far as India.

More than 50,000 Syrian Christians lived in the Tur Abdin less than 50 years ago. Only a few thousand remain.

In the provincial capital of Midyat (population 20,000), which until the 1950s had the distinction of being the only Turkish town that was almost exclusively Christian, just 100 Syrian families remain. Midyat once served as the residence of a governor. Reflecting the long history of antagonism between the Muslim Kurds and the Syrian Christians, the town is today divided into two distinct parts: one is Muslim and largely Kurdish, the other, Syrian Christian.

While Midyat is the current center of Turkey’s Syrian Christian community, the larger town of Mardin, west of the plateau, was the focal point of the community until the beginning of the 19th century. As early as the seventh century, Mardin had a Syrian Orthodox bishop based at the nearby Derzafaren Monastery, one of only two monasteries still operating.

According to tradition the monastery is built on the site of a Roman fortification. The oldest part of the complex, the Church of Mar Hanania, [probably founded by the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I (491-518)], lies within the sanctuary’s sand-colored walls. Most of the monastic buildings are of more recent date and include striking features such as an “orange squeezer” roof – an architectural characteristic of the region.

Near Midyat is the second working monastery, Mar Gabriel of Kartmen, the wealthiest and most famous of the Syrian Orthodox sanctuaries in the Middle Ages. Second only to Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage during the Byzantine period, Mar Gabriel was founded in the late fourth century and has the longest recorded history of all the Syrian monasteries.

Mar Gabriel consists of several churches and chapels, including a barrel-vaulted principal sanctuary and the Church of the Forty Martyrs. Subordinate ruins – the remains of a fourth century church dedicated to St. Simon and the tombs of Egyptian monks – give some indication of the monastery’s former importance. At its peak more than 400 monks lived there. Today a handful remain.

Syrian Orthodox-Muslim relations were often warmer than Syrian Orthodox-Byzantine relations. In the 12th century, the Syrian patriarch moved the seat of the patriarchate from Byzantine Christian to Muslim territory. In the 18th and 19th centuries, foreign travelers often remarked on the cordial interfaith relations in the region’s main towns. One missionary noted that Muslims and Christians even worshipped together.

In the rural areas, however, relations between Kurds and Syrians were strained. In 1911 the impartial English writer and traveler, Gertrude Bell, wrote that the Syrians “lie at the mercy of marauding Kurds, whose practices were not, unfortunately, to remain for us a matter of hearsay.” While camping in the Tur Abdin, the Kurds stole her saddlebags and money. It was the only time she had been robbed during her stay in the Middle East. Ms. Bell also noted that “it is the habit of the monks to let no traveller depart without food, a habit well known to the neighbouring Kurds who claim more hospitality than the monastery can well afford.”

After the turn of the century, the revival of Kurdish dissent and growing Turkish nationalism further isolated the Syrian Christian community.

In 1925 many Syrian Christians collaborated with local Kurds in a major uprising against the secular Turkish government, which had overthrown the Ottoman emperor. Led by their revered leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turks crushed the Kurdish revolt, rounded up those Syrians suspected of collaborating with the Kurds and deported them en masse. The Turkish military seized the Syrians’ cattle and grain stocks to feed their hungry and embittered troops; the Derzafaran Monastery was confiscated and turned into a Turkish barrack; the Syrian patriarch, Mar Ignatius Elias III, was expelled; and Mar Gabriel Monastery was occupied by opportunistic Kurdish tribesmen.

Whether this collaboration was done out of fear or conviction, it nevertheless cost the Syrian Christians dearly.

However the Syrian Christians retained control of their mountain villages in much of the Tur Abdin area. Many who fled to Syria or Iraq after the uprising returned to their homes. Ataturk later ousted the Kurds from Mar Gabriel Monastery, returning it to the Syrians. Slowly the Tur Abdin settled down to an uneasy peace. Deeply rooted tensions, however, could not be suppressed and the Syrians continued to live in perpetual fear that the Kurds coveted their homes and land.

Relations deteriorated further, when, in 1979, the socialist prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, planned to prohibit any religious activities in the Tur Abdin’s two remaining monasteries. Ecevit’s plan fell through and the area’s Christians remained nominally loyal to the Turkish government.

Despite this support, the regime in 1981 sought to close Mar Gabriel Monastery and transfer the buildings to the Turkish Muslim Pious Endowments Foundation. This attempt to appease Muslim fundamentalists failed. Reports of attacks by Kurds re-emerged during the 80s.

These repeated attacks have driven most Syrian Christians from their homeland. First they leave their villages for Midyat, then for Istanbul, where a mixed urban community is more tolerant and offers greater economic opportunities to minorities. Others then manage to join relatives in Europe, Syria, or the United States.

In several villages, elders remember when their neighbors converted to Islam in order to safeguard their land and homes. Yet, despite these conversions, about 60 villages were almost exclusively Christian as late as the mid-70s. Now their numbers are rapidly declining.

Twenty years ago Arnas, renamed Baglarbasi by the Turks, was a Christian village clustered around the Church of Mar Kyriakos. The church still stands but its congregation has whittled down to just five families.

As if persecution were not enough, Turkey’s Syrian Christians are once again caught in the crossfire between the Turkish government and militant Kurdish nationalists. The Turkish army and police distrust the Tur Abdin Christians, offering little protection from marauding Kurds. Turkish newspapers have widely reported the payment of large sums of protection money by Syrian Christians to Kurds. The reports have been denied by leaders of the Syrian Christian community.

The recent upsurge in hostilities has limited the number of visitors to the Tur Abdin. Those who do travel to the area are met with the same hospitality that greeted Gertrude Bell more than 80 years ago.

To the observer, Derzafaren Monastery’s ancient walls appear a haven of tranquility. But these massive walls give a false impression of the harsh realities confronting the community huddled therein. Within them, shaded by ancient trees, Syrian Orthodox monks in traditional black soutanes continue to teach Syriac to eager youngsters. Like their predecessors, they gather every afternoon to chant the Prayer of the Sunset. Having survived invading armies for 1500 years, time now appears to be running out for this small and often forgotten community.

Chris Hellier is a freelance photojournalist living and working in Turkey.

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