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Walking a Tightrope in Turkey

Syrian Orthodox Christians strive to remain in their homeland of remote southeastern Turkey.

My journey to the region began in Diyarbakir, the provincial capital of southeast Turkey. With only a vague, outdated map I drove toward Mardin, once the focal point of the area’s Syrian Orthodox community. I had made arrangements with Father Gabriel Akkurt to stay for several days at the Deyrulzafaran Monastery, one of only two monasteries still functioning.

Darkness had fallen by 5:30 P.M., and as I approached the town I quickly realized I would not be able to find my destination without some assistance. As I pulled into a service station, I spotted a group of young men speaking with the attendant. I approached them with my pile of maps. Since my Turkish was almost nonexistent, I attempted communication in Arabic, which I had learned while living in Jerusalem and had found useful in Diyarbakir. The young men were only too happy to help and within moments they had decided to drive with me to Deyrulzafaran.

The road to the monastery was narrow, winding and unpaved at points; when at last we reached its gates Father Gabriel was waiting outside for me. After a brief conversation he and the young men climbed into my car and we all drove back to the service station. After dropping off my guides he took me to a small restaurant and instructed the cook to prepare a plate for me. To maintain propriety I dined alone in the aile salonu, or family dining room, where women can feel comfortable dining alone or with other female companions. When I tried to pay for my meal I discovered that Father Gabriel had already taken care of the bill. This marked the beginning of the generous hospitality I would receive at the monastery and throughout my entire visit to southeast Turkey.

Deyrulzafaran lies approximately six miles from Mardin on a small plateau amid a stark landscape. Deyrulzafaran means “the Saffron Monastery”; according to tradition, saffron crocuses were used in the mortar during the construction of the monastic structures. Once the seat of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, now located in Damascus, the first monastery was built in 495 and destroyed by the Persians in 607. It was then rebuilt, only to be looted six centuries later. The present structure dates to 792 and contains icons dating as far back as 900. The chapel also houses a 300-year-old Bible inscribed in Aramaic and Arabic.

Upon our return to Deyrulzafaran I was treated to cups of traditional tea, or chai, and introduced to Father Ibrahim Turker, abbot of the monastery. Father Turker was born in nearby Midyat and has lived in the monastery for the past 46 years. There is one other monk in the monastery, Father Raban Melki Urek, as well as two nuns. And, like every monastery visited in my travels, Deyrulzafaran is also home to several families of cats.

The ringing of bells calling the monks to prayer interrupted our conversation. Saturday nights hold particular significance here: a special liturgy is celebrated to honor those 53 patriarchs and more than 100 bishops who lived and died in the area over the centuries. According to Syrian Orthodox tradition, these men all performed miracles and are therefore considered saints. I was permitted to photograph the ceremony and was entranced by the bluish light in the small chapel and the sounds of chant resonating through the night air. In this remote area liturgies are still celebrated in the Syriac tongue, an Aramaic dialect similar to the language spoken by Jesus. To accommodate the complex makeup of the area’s citizens, services are also conducted in Arabic and Turkish.

After the liturgy I was shown to my simple room over a chicken coop. I also discovered I was not the only guest at the monastery: several families from the Istanbul area had sought refuge here after last summer’s catastrophic earthquakes that killed family members and destroyed homes. The guests greeted me with warmth and enthusiasm and, despite our language barrier, took great pains to show me the few things they managed to salvage from the wreckage back home.

At dawn the bells rang again, marking the start of Sunday’ Divine Liturgy. There were perhaps a dozen worshippers, mostly elderly people from nearby villages who make the trip primarily for the monastery’ rich liturgy.

Many of the region’s churches have fallen into disrepair and are therefore unused. Muslim extremists and local Turkish government officials have hindered restoration efforts, often denying building permits. Under the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, Turkey’ Syrian Orthodox Christians were not listed as a distinct minority when official status was given to Turkey’ Armenian, Greek and Jewish citizens. For this reason, the government prohibited the Syrian Orthodox from operating their own schools and interfered with the administration of the church. The law is still vigorously enforced, although the three other religious minorities are somewhat free to operate their own schools.

In October 1997 Turkish authorities issued an order preventing the region’s Syrian Orthodox monks from teaching Syriac and housing guests in church facilities. In an official memo, the governor of Mardin declared these practices were violations of Turkish law. To justify this action he cited Article 24 of the Turkish Constitution, the 1936 charter of the Syrian Church Foundation and various educational provisions of the country’ laws. According to the governor, these statutes prevent the church from teaching Syriac independent of Turkey’ Education Ministry. Following these directives, then, prohibits Syrian Christians from learning the history of their faith and liturgy in their own language.

The edict also emphatically prohibited monasteries from housing visitors:

“There can be no residences within places of worship, because places of worship are devoted only to religious rites and worship.” In effect, this contradicts Turkey’s public claim that Syrian Orthodox Christians are “an important part of the cultural mosaic of Anatolia.”

In 1978 the government also banned the training of Syrian Orthodox priests at Deyrulzafaran, claiming that students were “participating in illegal organizations for separatism.”

Father Aziz Hadodo is a priest at St. Gabriel’s Syrian Orthodox Church in Hackensack, New Jersey. Born in Midyat, he immigrated to the United States in 1972. His parish includes nearly 100 families from Turkey.

Father Hadodo clearly remembers his childhood in southeast Turkey.

“In Midyat, it was forbidden to receive instruction in our language and religion. All the Christian children would go to the local church for lessons. We were always fearful we would be caught by the police.

“There would always be one parent keeping guard from a window. If the police came for an inspection, which they did regularly just to harass us, we would hide somewhere inside the church.

“I remember one time we were so close to being caught,” he added, “that my friends and I had to jump from a wall of the church to escape.”

As in other countries, involvement in Turkey’s military is mandatory. Christians are not exempt and they willingly enlist despite knowing that their religion virtually guarantees constant harassment from fellow soldiers and commanding officers. Father Hadodo recalls his brother George’s suffering – starting on the very first day of service – from the frequent berating by others in his unit; a man’s name immediately identifies him as Christian or Muslim. Even if it does not, a Syrian Orthodox Christian’s Turkish passport always includes his religious affiliation. This does not apply to Muslims or to those given minority status, such as Armenians, Greeks or Jews.

Strict government control over religious life is not the only problem facing Syrian Christians today. As war for an independent Kurdistan escalates in southern Turkey, the situation turns more precarious for its remaining Christian families. This guerrilla war has resulted in the deaths of roughly 35,000 people – mostly civilians – and the forced depopulation of thousands of villages by the Turkish military in their counterinsurgency struggle against the PKK. The government often declares that these evacuations are necessary to deprive the PKK of its support. Officially, 33 Syrian Orthodox have been killed since the onset of hostilities, many of them brutally murdered by the PKK. (In one incident, a Christian woman, nine months pregnant, was slaughtered for no apparent reason.) Five area provinces remain in a state of emergency and curfews are in effect in many areas. It is forbidden, for example, to travel between the two largest towns, Midyat and Mardin, after 4:30 P.M.

Christians often find themselves caught between armed Kurds and the Turkish military on the one hand and Kurdish village guards on the other. When Christians are forced into assisting the PKK, the Turkish military responds by razing their villages.

According to the 1999 Human Rights Watch World Report, village guards, Kurdish villagers who act as government-appointed civil guards and maintain order in southeastern villages, “continued to be implicated in many abuses, and civilians remained particularly vulnerable in the region.” The report also stated that, “victims who petitioned the parliamentary commission described methods such as forcing villagers to walk on mine fields or torturing family members and neighbors.”

Fearing reprisals from the PKK, civilians are often reluctant to become village guards. When compelled to join the village guards civilians are subject to violent retaliation by the PKK. If participation is refused, the village will almost certainly suffer from raids by security forces carrying out attacks against those families.

The village of Bunebil exemplifies the situation throughout southeast Turkey. One late afternoon Father Gabriel drove us to the village; Hannah, a young village boy receiving instruction at Deyrulzafaran, accompanied us. The road to the village is not paved – it took several attempts to reach the road, as many of its connecting dirt paths were flooded. At one time Bunebil was home to dozens of families. Today only about 12 families remain.

“The main reason people leave,“ said Father Gabriel, “is because of Muslim pressure to convert to Islam. Christians often have more money than Muslims, so robbery is also common.” This peaceful village has not escaped the brutality of the guerrilla war: four people were slain in November 1990. The killers were never apprehended, but it is believed the victims were murdered by the PKK. Bunebil has also suffered attacks by extremist groups and threats from village guards.

As we neared Hannah’s modest home I spotted some people gathered on a terrace chatting and drinking cups of chai. They all rose to wave hello. Surprised to see Father Gabriel with an American journalist, they were curious about what brought me to their remote area. When I spoke to them in Arabic, Hannah’s grandmother enveloped me in her arms and kissed me. Overcome with emotion, she told me how much it meant to have me there; she hoped I would tell the story of the Christians’ plight in Turkey. She felt that nobody really cared.

Like most small villages, Bunebil survives through farming and agriculture. There is a strong sense of community here: everyone works in some way toward maintaining independence from the larger surrounding towns. Bunebil’s resources are often pooled and the village is so poor it has only one minivan for its 80 or so residents.

Over cups of chai I learned the villagers’ fierce determination to protect theiridentity as Christians.

“We must stay here at all costs,” said Hannah’s grandmother. “We must work together to protect our churches and monasteries.” As she reached for Hannah’s hand she continued. “What is most important to us is our faith. Although we often have problems with the military and the PKK, faith is the one thing we hold on to.”

I asked how often they attend the local church. “Many people go twice a day. Otherwise everybody goes on Sunday.” Then, pointing to a group of men, she laughed. “Sometimes the women have to push the men a bit to go!” she added.

Dusk had already set in when we left Bunebil. Hannah’s grandmother squeezed my hand as we walked to the car. She hugged and kissed me several times and expressed her thanks that their story would finally reach the outside world.

On the drive back to Deyrulzafaran, I remembered a conversation with Father Hadodo. We discussed Turkey’s application for membership in the European Community and a report issued by the European Union Commission detailing Turkey’s human rights violations, particularly the great failings in the way minorities are treated.

If the experience of Bunebil’s citizens is any indication, there is still a long, difficult road ahead.

Former Jerusalem correspondent Karen Lagerquist travels throughout “our world.”

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