Taipei Times Thursday, Jan 06, 2005
Members of ancient Turkish Christian community try to get back to
PILGRIMAGE: The EU is encouraging Assyrian families to return to the
region and save one of the world's most ancient Christian communities
AP , Haberli, Turkey
Thursday, Jan 06, 2005,Page 6
Advertising Nine-year-old Ninua Saliba played hide-and-seek outside
a seventh century church as village men drank tea, chatted in a
language similar to Jesus' and waited for a Christmas visit by the
local Turkish governor.
The politician's stop and the calm in the ancient village would have
been inconceivable just a few years ago when the tiny Christian
community in southeastern Turkey was caught in the middle of fighting
between Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels.
But a sharp decrease in fighting and Turkey's focus on democracy and
human rights as it seeks to join the EU, are boosting hopes that one
of the world's oldest Christian communities can rebuild itself in its
Turkey, which faces European pressure to return displaced villagers
to the region and to grant more rights to minorities, is encouraging
thousands of Assyrians to come back, and dozens have returned,
Governor Osman Gunes' visit to Assyrian towns and monasteries
underlined the new spirit.
"If there hadn't been peace, we wouldn't have returned,"said Ninua's
father, Erden, who left with his family for Switzerland more than 20
years ago and was back for his first Christmas in Haberli.
"We're here to live in solidarity with the other villagers," he said,
as his wife Sara offered cookies to visitors sitting by a Christmas
tree in their house.
Saliba said he easily secured Turkish permission to return and build
a three-story house of stone that towers over the village. But he
said Haberli suffers frequent power cuts and lacks a public sewage
Unlike officially recognized religious minorities such as Jews and
Greek Orthodox Christians, schools aren't allowed to teach Syriac, a
modern version of the Aramaic spoken in Jesus' time. So there's no
suitable school for Saliba's three Swiss-raised children who speak
Syriac, but not Turkish.
An EU report in October said "very few" Assyrians have returned due
to harassment by pro-government Kurdish militiamen and paramilitary
The Assyrians encapsulate the complexities of a country that is
mostly Muslim, professes strict secularism and shrinks from any
recognition of ethnic pluralism. A sign at the entrance to Haberli
proclaims that ``The motherland is a whole and cannot be divided -- a
tacit warning to Kurdish rebels and anyone else seeking separate
The Assyrians have mostly sought to stay neutral between the
government and the Kurdish rebels, but neutrality has sometimes made
their loyalties suspect on both sides. That, and a lack of jobs, have
pushed many of them to emigrate, reducing the number of Christians in
the region to an estimated 4,000 at most. Saliba said that 30 years
ago, around 75 families lived in Haberli. About 20 families remain.
Human rights groups say soldiers forcibly emptied thousands of
villages throughout the region to deprive the Kurdish rebels of local
support. Fikri Turan returned from Germany to the village of Sarikoy
to find his house occupied by pro-government Kurdish militiamen who
refused to leave until the governor personally intervened.
Turan spent Dec. 25 at the fourth century Mor Gabriel monastery, one
of the world's oldest, where visitors from Europe attended early
morning services and ate traditional Christmas meals of boiled meat
For Assyrians, the clashes of the 1980s and 1990s were the most
recent in a series of challenges to a community that traces itself to
the pre-Christian Assyrian Empire. According to tradition, Assyrians
began adopting Christianity in the first century AD, 600 years before
the region was conquered by Arab Muslims.